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Lebanon heading toward a breaking point

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators piled into downtown Beirut Sunday, demanding that the U.S.-backed government step down immediately or face an escalation in a siege on the prime minister's headquarters being coordinated by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia.

While accounts vary of what the heightened tactics could consist of—a government worker's strike and a storming of the headquarters have both been mentioned—it's clear that the nation is headed toward a breaking point. Hezbollah and its allies have been camped in the center of the capital for more than a week, demanding that Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his Cabinet step down.

The implications are profound for U.S. efforts to counter Syrian and Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The Bush administration counts the massive "Cedar Revolution" protests that expelled Syrian forces from Lebanon last year as a key victory for pro-western democracy. But now, as U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan face significant setbacks, it is Syrian and Iranian ally Hezbollah that is filling the streets of Beirut and calling for revolution.

Speaking in front of the crowd on Sunday, Hezbollah's second in command, Naim Qassim, said in a message to Saniora: "Have a press conference tonight or tomorrow to tell the Lebanese people that you are resigning. ... If you resign today, it would be a positive step, but if you don't it will be negative for the future" of Lebanon.

Qassim also led the crowd in a booming chorus of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."

Michel Aoun, a Christian leader who has aligned himself with Hezbollah, went a step further.

"This must be the last big rally we'll call for, because in the next one there will be no room for all the protesters," Aoun said. "And the barbed wire will no longer protect the (government building) because people will move there naturally and without any instigation."

Sunni and Christian leaders have warned that a storming of the building could lead to large-scale unrest.

"You can control the people for one, two, maybe 10 days, but after that you cannot control the people; we will take down any fences between us" and the government building, said Ali Zein, one of the demonstrators. "The cup is full now, everything has its limits."

Both sides appear to have hardened their positions: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Saniora of working with the Israelis last summer during a 34-day war between Israel and the militia, and Saniora replied that Nasrallah's remarks were "an unnecessary fit of anger and rudeness."

Representatives from the Arab League have tried brokering a deal that would lead to an increased Hezbollah say in Cabinet decisions—a process marked by rumors of success that have yet to pan out. Hezbollah officials said Sunday night that they were working to find a solution to the impasse, but it was unclear if anything would come from the Arab League discussions.

Tensions between Lebanon's sects—particularly Sunnis and Shiites—have been moving toward a boil during the past week. With each story of a fight between men with pipes and rocks, each insult heard and repeated, the divide between the groups widens.

The Lebanese Army has blocked the entrances to many Sunni neighborhoods between downtown and the southern Shiite suburbs in an effort to prevent Shiite protesters from clashing with mobs.

Many in the Lebanese government are concerned that increased Sunni-Shiite violence could split the army along confessional lines.

"It will continue to be OK, unless there is a big clash between the two communities, this would put the army in a difficult position," said Joe Sarkis, a Cabinet member and a senior official in the Christian militia cum political party, the Lebanese Forces. "The army is telling us, please solve this soon, because if more time passes the situation might change for us."

Ahmed Fatfat, a Sunni Cabinet member and former Interior Minister, said he's gotten reports to that effect from officers in the army and other Lebanese security forces.

"It's risky," he said.

Asked how likely he thought it was that troops would abandon their posts and fight for their sect, Fatfat grimaced.

"It can happen," he said, and then paused for a moment: "Yes, it can."

The soldiers "go home at the end of the day," Sarkis said, "and there are politics in these neighborhoods."

The Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods are grouped closely together in the capital, a vestige of the 15-year civil war that drew battle lines between Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.

"There are going to be problems in the neighborhoods, the street is out of control, they fight here every night," said Ghazi al-Koush, who owns an electronics store in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Basta. "There is a lot of tension on the streets, and it's going to explode—things here are not going to end peacefully."

Al-Koush ran his hand across his face, and rested it for a moment near his glass eye. "During the civil war I lost my eye, I lost my house, I lost my shop, but I never saw Muslim brothers fighting brothers as they are now," he said. "This neighborhood stayed together during most of the civil war, but now it's falling apart."

He blamed most of the fighting on Shiites driving down the streets at night and yelling anti-Sunni slogans. But it was clear from interviews with residents across Beirut during the past week that members of both sects are picking fights.

"If the Shiites keep the siege on the (Cabinet building), the Sunnis will keep attacking the Shiites on the street," said Mohammed Saaidon, a local leader in the Sunni neighborhood of Aisha Bakkar. "You can't imagine how angry the Sunnis are ... we won't let the Shiites take Beirut."

That sense of Sunni rage is met in many Shiite neighborhoods with a confidence that at times borders on an eagerness to fight.

"If this continues there will be problems," said Mohammed Hussein, who was walking through the streets of Dahiya, a Hezbollah stronghold south of Beirut.

A friend piped up, cheerfully: "It will be civil war."

Down the street, Bassam Boulud was sitting with a group of men, including a Hezbollah security worker.

"If we want, we can control the whole country in 72 hours, according to the latest (Hezbollah) study," Boulud said.

The Hezbollah guard put his hand on Boulud's shoulder.

Boulud corrected himself: "But because of the wisdom of Hassan Nasrallah, this will not happen."

After the demonstration Sunday, a group of women were standing beside the bus that brought them up from their south Lebanon homes in the town of Tyre.

One of them, who gave only her first name, Ibtihal, said that she hoped another civil war wasn't coming, but that the time to act was drawing near. She said she knew that going into the government center downtown was a "redline" for the Sunnis and Christians, but that she hoped to be "the first one in the building."

"We have been patient until now," she said, "but after today, we are willing to cross all redlines."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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