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Life continues in Beirut even as protesters swarm the city

BEIRUT, Lebanon —As Hezbollah and its allies were trying to overthrow the Lebanese government in downtown Beirut and sporadic street fighting erupted between Sunnis and Shiites in the outlying neighborhoods, George Naddaf decided it would be a good day to go jogging.

That Naddaf and thousands more Lebanese men and women chose to run in a marathon near downtown Beirut Sunday, just a few blocks away from tens of thousands of Hezbollah demonstrators, says volumes about the often surreal sectarian divide that threatens to tear the nation apart.

With Shiite Muslim Hezbollah members beating drums and calling for revolution, a lot of Christians like Naddaf carried on with their lives as though nothing were happening. While much of Hezbollah's support comes from south Lebanon, a rural stretch of militancy and dirt-poor villages, many Christians and Sunni Muslims of Beirut are accustomed to the cosmopolitan trappings of the capital—a city by the sea where Porsches and Mercedes roam the streets and the dance clubs are open all night.

"Most probably the Syrians are going to infiltrate the (Hezbollah) demonstration and carry out a terrorist attack and this will turn into a sectarian conflict," said Naddaf, who had finished his run and was taking pictures of his friends crossing the finishing line under a bright banner surrounded by ads for BMW, Nike and Tropicana. "But we will not be influenced by such things, life goes on."

Asked about the intentions of Hezbollah, Naddaf curled his lip and said, "these demonstrators, they are not from Beirut, they are like the Mexicans in America ... they are from the south, this is not their land."

A five-minute walk away, there was a sea of people—at least tens of thousands, probably more—yelling chants supporting Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

In their third day of siege against the core of downtown, where the nation's government buildings are centered, the men and women waving Lebanese and Hezbollah flags said they had no doubt that the government would be theirs. The Hezbollah supporters were joined by members of a Christian faction who, more through convenience than loyalty of cause, hope to see their leader Michel Aoun take the nation's presidency, his followers say.

"This government must leave—the people are here now, their will is here," said Sanaa Dohme, a Hezbollah organizer who oversaw a large tent of women who took turns giving speeches.

A reporter mentioned the marathon being run nearby, and Dohme winced a little.

"They have put themselves in another world, they are trying to show us that they don't care about us," she said. "In the end, there will be justice."

Ali Iskandr, who drove up from southern Lebanon, has been living in a tent at the demonstration since Friday.

"We want this to end peacefully," he said. "But we are ready to take the government by force."

The night before, there were several clashes in Sunni neighborhoods near downtown. Residents there said that the fighting began when Shiite protestors showed up in trucks, chanting against the government.

"Guys from outside the neighborhood came and set up here and started saying bad things," said Ayman Moghrabi, who was smoking Marlboro cigarettes with a friend at an intersection at the Sunni neighborhood of Tarik al-Jedida. "We started throwing bottles at them, and that's when things started."

Moghrabi said that maybe six men were taken to the hospital afterward, and that he expected much worse in the coming days.

"I hope it doesn't happen, but this all may lead to sectarian war," Moghrabi said.

Across town, in the upscale ABC Mall—a favorite of the upper-middle class—shoppers strolled around the Christmas trees and sparkling silver snowflakes. There were mannequins in storefront windows wearing Christmas-inspired lingerie that barely covered their crotches and breasts.

One woman, who wore wraparound sunglasses indoors and told a reporter "my name is Aline, it's French," said of Hezbollah that, "we don't agree with these people and they don't agree with us, so we live our separate lives."

Many had come to eat at the restaurants at ABC Mall because the regular spots downtown were closed or too near the hassle of the demonstrations.

Wearing a dark Dolce and Gabbana sweater, Michel Salem sipped his coffee at the French restaurant, Paul.

"You can never bring these two worlds together," Salem said, waving his hand in the air dismissively.

Back at the demonstration, Ibrahim Moussawi, the editor of a popular Hezbollah newspaper, walked through the crowd.

"There is a deep division in Lebanon now between one group that thinks everything is fine and another group that thinks there are very big problems," Moussawi said. "I hope this government will resign, I hope they will come to their senses, soon."

Later in the evening Sunday, far from the expensive boutique shops and cigar shops, a gunfight broke out in Tarik al-Jedida, the Sunni neighborhood.

Witnesses said that a group of Shiites were passing by when an argument began. It began with slurs against political parties and then, witnesses said, turned into religious insults.

A crowd began throwing rocks at the Shiites, who pulled out guns and began to shoot.

A man, Ahmed, was shot and taken to the hospital.

The Lebanese Army was called out, and quickly surrounded the area. Residents blocked the roads with tires and concrete blocks.

Ahmed's family members were in the street, screaming for revenge. Mobs formed, and began to fight amongst themselves, beating each other with sticks and rocks. At one point, a man ran up and shot his revolver just above the crowd and began to aim again when soldiers ran at him, rifles drawn.

Standing among a group of men who were holding bats and sticks, the streetlights casting shadows against the concrete, Mohammed Hani said he thought that a war was coming.

"This is going to escalate," he said. "This country is filled with tension and you don't know when it will explode."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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