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Sectarian divisions deepening in Lebanon

 

BEIRUT, Lebanon - The fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has deepened Lebanon's sectarian divisions, threatening to shatter the fragile peace in a country still haunted by civil warHezbollah's opponents widely blame the Shiite guerrilla group for dragging Lebanon into a ruinous war with its July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. In the future they are sure to be more aggressive dealing with a group that has been nearly autonomous in southern Lebanon.With memories of a 15-year civil war still fresh, many Lebanese doubt another one could break out. But the latest hostilities have brought to forefront the question of disarming Hezbollah, an explosive problem that could not be resolved in months of talks among Lebanese politicians this year."What comes after the war will be more dangerous than the war itself," said Rafik Khoury, co-editor-in-chief of Al-Anwar daily. "Certainly, there are fears of another civil war, but the conditions conducive for such a war don't exist now.A 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution called for the disarmament of Lebanese militias. But the Lebanese government has been reluctant to confront Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, the standard bearer of the country's 1.2 million Shiites for nearly two decades.Members of Lebanon's Western-backed government have said the country must close ranks in the face of Israel's offensive. But that show of unity could end when the fighting stops. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has ominously suggested that the time for "tallying the scores" against the guerrillas' critics would come when hostilities subside. Hezbollah's popularity surged in 2000 when Israel ended an 18-year occupation of a border strip in Lebanon, faced with mounting causalities from guerrilla attacks.In the past year, however, its close ties to Syria have left it more isolated. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and U.N. investigations have implicated Damascus. Massive anti-Syrian protests, coupled with international pressure, drove Syrian troops out of Lebanon after 29-year occupation. Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former premier and leader of Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, dismissed talk of another civil war."Although some of us think differently about what triggered this, the last thing we need is internal division," he said in a Time magazine interview published Monday.But he vowed that Hezbollah actions like the July 12 raid would not be allowed in the future.Since its independence from France in 1943, Lebanon has survived on a delicate power-sharing formula that gives the presidency to a Christian, the prime minister's job to a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the House post to a Shiite. That formula filters down to the army and most government departments, whose hierarchy reflects the nation's sectarian makeup.Hezbollah and its allies in the Amal Shiite movement control most of the Shiite seats in parliament and have forced themselves into the political order as the representatives of their community Although civil war ended in 1990, relations between religious groups have been dangerously fragile, aggravated by Syria's influence, bickering politicians and Israel's military incursions.Talal Arsalan, a Hezbollah backer and prominent politician from the minority Druse Islamic sect, said Israel's latest offensive was designed to "feed the sectarian sedition inside ... exploiting the fragility of Lebanon's political system as a prelude to carving the country" along sectarian lines.Hezbollah's defeat at the hands of Israel could strengthen Lebanon's other communities, especially the Sunnis. But Nasrallah has said that just putting up a fight and surviving Israel's offensive would be a victory for his group. Khoury, the Al-Anwar editor, warned that Hezbollah would only stand to lose if it starts settling scores after the fighting."Survival will give Hezbollah confidence and strength," he said. "It can only lose if it embarks on taking on its critics. It will lose the moment if turns its military capability into a sectarian weapon."