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South Lebanese city poses challenge to government authority

SIDON, Lebanon—The children of this Lebanese port city grow up with the legend of their ancestors burning down their homes rather than submit to a Persian invasion in 351 B.C. But for their modern-day enemies—Israel and the United States—many locals favor a different ending to the ancient tale.

"Now we prefer to burn invaders rather than burn ourselves," Abdul Rahman Bizri, Sidon's mayor, said with a hearty chuckle.

Sidon is the birthplace of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, as well as his close friend, the billionaire former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination last year fueled a pro-democracy movement that the Bush administration hoped would become a model for the Middle East.

But the residents of Sidon hardly embrace the same vision. As Saniora and Hariri grew closer to their Western allies, the more local support diminished for Sidon's famous sons.

Now, with its shifting political alliances and a militant movement fueled by Hezbollah's declaration of victory over Israel, Sidon encapsulates the battle the government faces in extending its authority throughout Lebanon. To win over the south, Saniora—and his backers from the Hariri family—must first get past their hometown.

"The Hariri bloc has no chance of extending its power beyond the perimeter of Sidon. Actually, they have difficulties within the city itself," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut. "There are other competitors now."

Wedged between the government seat north in Beirut and Hezbollah's vast southern fiefdom, Sidon's residents call their town "the gateway to the resistance." It's also the portal for a look inside the swirl of ideologies, religions, sects and dynasties that make Lebanon so difficult to govern, especially in the tumultuous aftermath of war.

Sidon, the largest city in southern Lebanon, is a Sunni Muslim bastion in a Shiite Muslim crescent. But even the Sunnis here are far from homogenous—they're a mishmash of secular Arab nationalists, Western-friendly reformists, moderate Islamists and militant zealots.

The city's environs include Christian villages with their own political diversity, as well as Shiite Muslim villages that are strongholds for Hezbollah or the more moderate Amal party. And then there's the dismal Ain el-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp and a hotbed of Sunni fundamentalism.

A traffic roundabout in Sidon displays the array of political forces doing battle in the city: There are Hezbollah's bright yellow flags, portraits of the late Hariri, a graffito that reads "Yes to Saddam Hussein," and photos of President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac embedded in text from the Quran that warns of invaders.

Lebanese electoral law groups Sidon with other southern cities in the same district, which means Sunni politicians from the city must court Shiite voters.

For years, Lebanese political analysts say, there's been an agreement with Shiite leaders that each of Sidon's major Sunni families _the Hariris, the Bizris and the Saads—would get a share of the political pie. For now, a Bizri is the mayor, while a Saad and a Hariri ran uncontested for Sidon's two seats in parliament.

The Bizris and the Saads, both from Arab nationalist parties, play to the militant strands of the population with their support for "the resistance" and harsh criticism of the government in Beirut. By all accounts, they're on good terms with Hezbollah, Palestinian factions and many Sunni Islamists.

"The politics of Bizri aren't the same as those of Hariri. He's with the resistance," Abu Ahmed Fadel, the leader of Ain el-Hilweh's branch of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, said referring to Bizri. "The Hariris have nothing here, only big, luxurious villas. They have no power."

The Hariri bloc is the anchor of the so-called March 14 Forces, a grouping of several Christian and Sunni politicians that forms the backbone of the Saniora administration. They came to power after the death of Rafik Hariri and the end of Syria's military domination of Lebanon.

The recent conflict with Israel, many Lebanese say, exposed the cracks in the government's calls for change: political infighting, a weak military, close ties to Western supporters of Israel, and virtual paralysis when it came to coping with a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

A reporter made four telephone requests and one visit to the offices of Bahiya Hariri, the pro-government legislator from Sidon. Her aides said she was not available.

Many political analysts believe the Saniora administration will pay a heavy political price for its handling of the war, starting in the premier's birthplace: Sidon.

"People see the March 14 people as related to the United States," said Sheikh Mohamed Eid, a Pakistan-trained Sunni cleric who said his followers don't believe the government represents them. "Before, we used to think that resisting politically was a good way. But the United States started putting pressure on the U.N. to make rules against Arabs and Muslims, and (the government) didn't say anything. Now, no one thinks the political way is the best way."

During the conflict, Israeli airstrikes took out Sidon's bridges, three gas stations and a Shiite religious school. On the outskirts of the city, warplanes destroyed water reservoirs, a power plant and a tissue factory. Shiites fleeing villages farther south descended on Sidon, almost doubling its normal population of about 125,000.

Bizri, the mayor, said private donations far outstripped the government's meager aid to Sidon. He said residents were outraged at the American-backed government in Beirut and added "the credibility of the state is being questioned here every day."

"There is a strong culture of resistance here," Bizri said. "It's a difficult city to neglect or marginalize. Sidon has always been the source of good or, unfortunately, bad in Lebanon."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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