Jumblatt shoots his mouth off

BEIRUT — Well, this is just great. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said that reconciliation with Hezbollah was “impossible” because the Shi’ite militant group wants to replace the current pluralist state and society of Lebanon.
This is bunk. I have my criticisms of Hezbollah, but they don’t want to take over the whole country. For one, they don’t want the responsibility. They want to be a resistance movement fighting the Israelis; they don’t want to be in charge of filling potholes in Tariq el-Jdeide. They want enough power within the current system to guarantee the south remains theirs, so they can move freely in and out of it and keep their weapons, which is the real base of their power. Does anyone think Iran and Syria would continue to finance them if they weren’t such an effective tool against Israel? If Hezbollah had no weapons, then they have no money. If they have no money, they have no ability to support their social services, which are a strong draw to Lebanon’s poorer Shi’ite population. Without that loyalty, they’re nothing — and Hezbollah knows it. As Hezbollah sees it, they _have_ to protect their weapons if they want to remain politically viable.
But back to Jumblatt (or “Jumbo” as he’s affectionately know to local journalists). He’s long had a reputation as a dial-a-quote politician/warlord, but he represents one of the smallest communities in Lebanon. (Druze make up maybe 5 percent of the population.)
What’s dangerous about his comments, however, is that he’s listened to by the rank and file of March 14, and his comments can harden attitudes to any kind of compromise — which is sorely needed these days. Hezbollah ain’t going away, and it has to be integrated into the Lebanese political system somehow — fully and nonviolently. Jumblatt’s comments make that more difficult.
At any rate, his comments came in the wake of the disturbing discovery of two caches of explosives and detonation fuses scattered around Beirut and the rest of the country. Perhaps someone was just trying to dump them, but it’s set the place on edge. Careless comments from political leaders are not the best way to calm the situation.

Two buses blown up in Christian area

Bombs destroyed two commuter buses today in the small Christian community of Ain Alaq, in the mountains north of Beirut. Was this Syria? Hezbollah? CIA? (A Hezbollah spokesman said it was the latter.) Was it a warning to the March 14 coalition not to attend the big rally planned for downtown tomorrow to mark the two-year anniversary of Hariri’s death?

BEIRUT — Bombs destroyed two commuter buses today in the small Christian community of Ain Alaq, in the mountains north of Beirut.
Reports of fatalities varied, but ranged from three (Red Cross, security forces) to 12 (LBC and other media sources.) Ten to 20 were wounded. The first bomb was apparently attached to the undercarriage of the first bus while the second was in a back seat on the second, according to my fixer, who is trying to find more info. I’ll update if this changes.
The wounded were civilians possibly traveling to work, marking a change in the “two-year campaign of bombings and assassinations”:http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L13582123.htm that has wracked Lebanon since the killing of Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005. Before, the attacks were either targeted assassinations of well-known anti-Syrian politicians and journalists or small bombs exploded in buildings late at night so as to minimize casualties. This seems aimed at Iraq- or Israel-style terror. Random, anywhere, pitiless.
Details are still emerging, but speculation is rampant. Was this Syria? Hezbollah? CIA? (A Hezbollah spokesman said it was the latter.) Was it a warning to the March 14 coalition not to attend the big rally planned for downtown tomorrow to mark the two-year anniversary of Hariri’s death?
One intriguing connection is to Elias Murr, Lebanon’s defense minister. The buses originated in Bteghrin, the home of the Murr family — they’re the major clan there — and some have wondered if this could be a response to Murr’s “refusal last week to return a truck full of Hezbollah weapons”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6345761.stm intercepted by the Lebanese Army?
Elias Murr was the target of a failed assassination in July 2005.
I’m not convinced of that, as it would be a complete turn-around for Hezbollah, who have not (yet) turned their weapons on their fellow Lebanese — a point of pride for the group.
Also, the attack happened near Bikfaya, the ancestral home of the Gemayel clan. Several of the dead were Gemayels. Lebanon’s industry minister, Pierre Gemayel “was assassinated”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/11/pierre_gemayel_has_been_assass.php in November.
Michel Murr, the defense minister’s father, was at the site of the bombing and said it was a message for all Lebanese to come together and transcend politics. That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s almost assuredly _not_ the message the bombers were trying to send.
More likely, it was a warning to March 14.
“They are trying to sabotage tomorrow’s meeting,” said Ahmad Fatfat, the former interior minister. “They are trying to divide the Christians. … The people who are doing this don’t want the people to come together and it’s another link in the chain” of assassinations.
“I cannot believe any Lebanese is capable of doing such a terrible thing,” he added.
Fatfat also said the bombs were placed on the buses yesterday, although he declined to say how he knew that.
Obviously, Fatfat is not-so-subtlely pointing the finger at Syria. A Hezbollah spokesman said the same thing, but blamed the CIA instead of Syria.
I witnessed this in Iraq, too, by the way, early in the insurgency. In 2004, when the violence was much more sporadic and rare than it is now, Iraqis would often tell me, “These bombs could not come from Iraqis. No Iraqi would hurt another Iraqi. This must be the Israelis or CIA.”
There’s always a natural tendency to believe that outsiders are the ones doing the killing. Witness the immediate reaction to the Murrah Building in 1995. Everyone immediately suspected Arab terrorism, not home-grown white supremacists.
But right now, especially on the eve of the anniversary of the killing of Hariri, everyone in Lebanon — Hezbollah, March 14, etc. — is banking on national unity for their own purposes. “Hariri was for all of us,” as many say. Other parties — Syria, especially, but possibly Israel — would love to see Lebanese at each others’ throats. Syria could use any violence as an “I told you so” excuse to intervene again, and Israel probably wouldn’t mind seeing Hezbollah on the defensive in its own country.
(Mind you, I’m not accusing Israel of today’s bombing; I’m just analyzing who might stand to gain from Lebanese discord.)
*UNRELATED (?) NEWS:* The Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the highest ranking Sunni cleric in country, claims in a press release to LBC that he was heckled and threatened by the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led March 8 protesters as he led prayers at Hariri’s grave in Martyr’s Square downtown today. He says he was told to leave or they would burn his car.
(March 8 is a coalition of mostly Shi’ite parties and some Christians, and includes Hezbollah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Christian parties of Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh. With the exception of Aoun, they are all solidly pro-Syrian. Aoun just wants to be president and will hitch his horse to whichever wagon he thinks will win.)
Also, in this morning’s _San Francisco Chronicle_, I have a story about the “rearming of the Lebanese factions.”:http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/13/MNG62O3F5U1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=001&sc=1000 It might become very relevant after today.

“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling”

Here’s the latest I filed from Lebanon. “A much shorter version”:http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/index.ssf?/base/news-10/116556152129650.xml&coll=1 appeared in the _Newark Star-Ledger_, but here’s the full account:

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s capital is once again a tinderbox, ready to blow because of political rivalries exacerbated by sectarian tensions. Increasingly, the political disputes — which are ostensibly over international tribunals, presidential terms and the legitimacy of a government — have grown into religious disputes, mirroring the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites across the region.
Which leader one supporters is often determined by one’s faith. Shi’ites support the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has called for the overthrow of the current government as being too close to the United States and cutting Shi’ites out of power for too long. Sunnis, however, support the current government because it is lead by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who is a member of the Future Movement, a political party headed Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered ex-premier Rafik, who was killed in 2005.
“The political issues are sectarian,” explained Tariq Tarqawi, 20, who is, in order, a Palestinian, a Sunni and a car electrician. He lives in Ard Jalloul, a mainly Sunni neighborhood that abuts the mainly Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut. “They love Nasrallah, we love Hariri.”
It’s a political crisis that has come to a head in the past week, with hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian supporters filling downtown Beirut and street clashes between Sunni and Shi’ite youths from rival neighborhoods. Nasrallah says his people will continue to demonstrate and paralyze central Beirut until the government resigns. Siniora says he’s staying. Where this ends up is anyone’s guess, but it’s already turned deadly.
Ali Ahmad Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shi’ite from the neighborhood, was killed Sunday night in fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Ard Jalloul. Details are murky, but residents say Shi’ite protesters apparently entered the neighborhood spoiling for a fight.
“If we hadn’t fought them, they would have come in here and broken everything,” said Khalid Hashem, 20, a Sunni from the neighborhood. He was, he added, a friend of Mahmoud. “The Shi’ites are known for this.”
According to others, the intruders chanted slogans and insulted Sunni religious figures.
“We could not bear it anymore,” said one woman in a pharmacy whose husband would not allow her name to be used. “I did not like Hariri and I had nothing against the Shi’ites, but now things are changing. This is not a political demonstration anymore.”
Both Shi’ite and Sunni partisans blame the other side for the shooting, but the question remains: Who killed Ali Ahmad Mahmoud?
The situation is so knife-edge balanced that the head of Lebanese army warned that his forces were being strained to the breaking point as they tried to cope with the security downtown and maintain calm through the tenser neighborhoods of the city. If the protests continued, or worse, turned more violent, the army would be unable to cope, he said.
On Monday, Mahmoud’s body was taken down to the demonstration surrounding the Grand Serail, the old Ottoman fortress that serves as the prime minister’s office and now, the sleeping quarters for a significant portion of Siniora’s cabinet.
The sight of Mahmoud’s coffin brought a fresh surge of fury at the government and protestors crowded around the ambulance carrying it. Many carried signs proclaiming Mahmoud a martyr. “Martyred at the hands of the government’s militias,” read one.
Almost gone were the initial political considerations that had brought the hundreds of thousands into downtown Beirut: the international tribunal, presidential terms and Shi’ite representation. Monday was a day of mourning and passion.
“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling,” chanted the protestors. “Death to Siniora.”
Downtown Beirut is a tent city, with the canvas constructions lined up below the Grand Serail, like many a besieging army has done over the centuries in this part of the world. At any hour, chanting protestors crowd up against coils of concertina wire while Lebanese Army and Hezbollah discipline men keep them relatively at bay.
For Iman Fakhiya, 29, from the Shi’ite town of Taibe in the south, this protest is simply a matter of fairness for the Shi’ites, who have traditionally been the underdogs in Lebanon.
Hezbollah gained support in the south because the government in Beirut rarely provided services to the rural and impoverished South and Bekaa Valley, the homelands for the country’s Shi’ites. And over 23 years, since its formation in 1982, it has softened its Islamic rhetoric, and now provides for Shi’ites when the government doesn’t, such as schools and hospitals, and defends them when the elite of Lebanon won’t. Even today, on online forums revolving around events in Beirut, supporters of the government often talk of the Shi’ites downtown as “scum” and dirty outsiders.
“I think my parents’ generation accepted this but we won’t,” she said. “They want to keep us down. We just want our rights. Why is the presidency for the Christians and the prime ministership for the Sunnis?”
For her, it is only a matter of time, literally. She would stay for as long as it takes, she said, no matter how uncomfortable she was.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said as she pulled the blanket tighter. “We’ve been hurting for a long time. We are used to it.”

Also, I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks, so postings will be infrequent. I hope things don’t get out of control here.
IMPORTANT CHANGE: Comments have been changed to allow authenticated commenters only. This means you will have to sign up for a “TypeKey”:https://www.typekey.com/t/typekey/register?lang=en-us account to comment. This will cut down on spam and drive-by commenters. Sorry for the inconvenience, but it’s a necessary evil these days.

Massive protest swamps Beirut

BEIRUT — In a massive show of force, Lebanon’s protestors loyal to Hezbollah and its political allies poured into the streets of downtown Beirut by the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing last weeks show of support for the government and delivering a sweeping rebuke to Lebanon’s political establishment.

The streets, squares and bridges of several neighborhoods were a sea of red and white Lebanese flags as supporters of the Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal, as well as the Christian groups Marida and the Free Patriotic Movement, took to the streets in an attempt to topple the U.S.-backed government.

“The real problem with this government is that they did not stand with us during the war,” said Muhammad Obaid, 40, a Hezbollah supporter, echoing a common complaint of the opposition, which is also called the March 8 coalition.

Hezbollah, which is supported and armed by both Syria and Iran, captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12, prompting a massive retaliation by the Jewish state that turned into a 34-day war. More than 1,000 Lebanese died — mostly civilians — and the country’s infrastructure and industries were devastated. Hezbollah feels that the government in Beirut, which is led by Sunni politician Fuad Siniora, didn’t support it enough and even quietly hoped for it to lose the war so that the Shi’ite group would no longer be a viable political opponent.

Hezbollah emerged stronger than ever, however, and demanded more power in the government for itself and its allies in the March 8 coalition. After six cabinet ministers from their political bloc resigned, and Christian industry minister Pierre Gemayel was murdered, the March 8 forces hope to force the resignation of the Siniora government so that new elections can be held — which they feel they will win.

“The government will fall today,” Obaid said confidently.

Obaid comes from a small town in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut, a stronghold for Hezbollah. He said that the group had paid him to drive his bus to ferry protestors to Beirut. From his village alone, he said there were four large buses and 15 minibuses.

By any count, the crowd was massive, easily topping 1 million people. It was unclear how many people were in the streets because of the sheer numbers, but today’s protest may have surpassed the original 2005 protest that gave Siniora’s bloc its name — the March 14 movement. That protest, coming exactly a month after the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri, led to the end of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, a defeat the regime in Damascus would like to undo with its allies in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah.

Packed and partying crowds of mostly young people stretched from the Christian neighborhood of Gemayze to the east, to the government buildings ringed by concertina wire on the other side of downtown toward the west, and from the site of Hariri’s grave near the port up to Sodeco Square in the Christian enclave of Achrafiye. They filled alleyways and overpasses, and all seemed to carry a flag of some sort.

Most carried the Lebanese flag, its red and white stripes framing a green cedar, but becoming a dramatic sweep when thousands upon thousands of the banners waved. But the Lebanese could not resist putting their own party’s stamp on their outfits, with Hezbollah members draping the milita’s flag about their shoulders and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriot Movement supporters wearing orange sweatshirts or baseball caps.

The crowd for the most part was friendly and respectful of the call by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah not to damage property or resort to violence, but a group of young toughs did celebrate the murder of Pierre Gemayel, by saying, “Congratulations to Pierre, when is Geagea next?” Samir Geagea is the leader of another Christian political party called the Lebanese Forces and is particularly hated by the Shi’ites of Lebanon. “We want your wife, Hakim,” they chanted referring to Geagea’s nickname and his wife, considered one of the more beautiful women in Lebanon. Their jibe was an ugly, sexist chant.

They called the interior minister a Jew while Hezbollah security stood by, watching impassively. It was only after I asked the youths why they were chanting such things — and their violent reaction when I said “I’m a reporter” in my badly accented Arabic — that the Hezbollah security guard intervened.

“They are not polite,” the guard said as he pushed me away roughly. “I don’t want you talking to people who aren’t polite.”

The March 8 movement has vowed to stay in the streets, staging sit-ins until the government resigns. As night fell, trucks carrying portable toilets and water tanks arrived while tents were being set up in Martyrs’ Square.

“If they don’t step down, we will stay here,” said Hayan Ismael, 22, a physics student from the Bekaa village of Bednayel and a supporter of another Christian group. He said protest organizers had timed the protests for Friday afternoon before the weekend to minimize the economic impact of shutting down the heart of Beirut, indicating that March 8 may be expecting a resolution by Monday morning. Downtown merchants have been complaining for months since the war about all the disruptions to business.

“Every day the government stays and doesn’t step down, it makes the economy suffer,” said Ismael.

Siniora, however, vowed last night not to step down.

“We will not allow a democratic government to be toppled or its institutions,” Siniora said in a televised address. “Nor will we allow a state within a state. We are the legitimate government and responsible for all Lebanese.”

Ready to Blow

BEIRUT — After today’s “funeral for Pierre Gemayel”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/11/mourning_in_beirut.php, Lebanon is ready to blow.
Tonight, about 1,000 Shi’ite youths gathered along airport road and began protesting what they said were the insults made against Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah at the funeral this afternoon. (Saad Hariri more or less said the majority claimed by Hezbollah and others in the March 8 movement was a mirage.)
Soon, a crowd of Sunni youths gathered nearby, prompting a large response from the Lebanese security forces. Local Hezbollah officials told the Shi’ite crowd to go home, but they were ignored, prompting Nasrallah to call Manar TV, the group’s television channel, and issue a call for the crowd to disperse. That, too, initially seemed to be ignored, and it is only after several hours that the protestors drifted home.
In another worrisome development, in a Palestinian camp in the north of the country (I haven’t pinned down the name yet), camp residents clashed with Sunni extremists loyal to Jund al-Sham, a group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
And finally, former Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa has withdrawn his resignation, meaning Ahmad Fatfat is no longer _acting_ interior minister. This is important because it increases the numbr of people in the Siniora cabinet who are full-fledged ministers. The cabinet is normally made up of 24 ministers, with 16 needed for a quorum. Last weekend, five Shi’ite ministers and a pro-Syrian Christian minister resigned, threatening the stability of the government. Then Pierre Gemayel was killed, bringing the number of absent ministers to seven. If two more ministerial seats became vacant, Siniora’s government would be automatically dissolved.
Since Fatfat was only an acting minister, there might be some legal justification to dissolve the government if only one more minister was removed. So by bringing Sabaa back, the March 14 forces are solidfying their position and hunkering down for a long fight.

Lebanon hurtles toward crisis

A story I filed for the _Singapore Strait Times_:

BEIRUT — Lebanon found itself hurtling further toward political crisis today, brought on by a head-on collision between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs over what appeared to be disputes concerning power-sharing in the government and the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The tensions boiled over when five Shi’ite and one Christian cabinet ministers resigned from Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government yesterday and today after a new round of national reconciliation talks broke down last week. The Shi’ites, represented mainly by the militant group Hezbollah, are demanding a “national unity” government with one-third of the seats in Siniora’s cabinet for themselves and their pro-Syrian political allies, a distribution of power that would give them veto power over any decisions the government makes.
And one of the decisions concerns the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of Hariri, who was killed along with 22 other people on Feb. 14, 2005, in a massive car bomb in central Beirut. Siniora’s cabinet approved the tribunal Monday after a three-hour meeting downtown, despite the absence of the six pro-Syrian ministers.
“Our aim is to achieve justice and only justice,” Siniora said after the meeting. The draft document now goes to the Security Council for endorsement.
But whether Lebanon’s prime minister can achieve anything with Hezbollah and its allies arrayed against him is questionable. Were Hezbollah and its allies to gain the veto power they want, the could scuttle the international tribunal.
“We have been waiting for the court to take shape and to reach this day,” said Tourism Minister and Siniora ally Joe Sarkis. “If the intentions of all were pure, everyone should have participated in uncovering the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri. … We should have all been united over this and they could have resigned tomorrow.”
Under Lebanon’s complicated rules of governance, if one-third of the cabinet resigns, the government collapses and a new must be formed. The remaining 18 ministers seem loyal to Siniora, however, and seem unlikely to resign.
That hasn’t stopped some opposition figures from from questioning Siniora’s legitimacy. President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian and Syrian ally, said Sunday that Siniora’s government was no longer legitimate because the Lebanese constitution requires that “all sects should be justly represented in the Cabinet.” He further claimed that with the Shi’ite walkout, all decisions of the cabinet were “null and void.”
Siniora says his government has all the legitimacy it needs but without Hezbollah’s backing in Parliament, he will find it difficult to get any legislation passed, especially the international tribunal. After its endorsement by the Security Council, it is handed back to the cabinet for final approval, signed by the president and passed by parliament.
The Shi’ite militia has threatened massive street protests unless the cabinet is reshuffled more to its liking, a political switch-up that the group says reflects its real support among the Lebanese in the wake of this summer’s 34-day between Hezbollah and Israel, brought on by the group’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. It was a war that ended in what could best be called a stalemate, but which Hezbollah supporters hailed as a “divine victory.” Hezbollah’s enemies in the government, however, saw the war as a reckless adventure into which the group dragged Lebanon against its will.
The Shi’ite group was emboldened however, and with what the United States says is backing from Iran and Syria, has made a political putsch against the current, pro-Western Siniora government. There are many in Lebanon who feel that the international tribunal will implicate senior members of the Syrian regime, which relies on Hezbollah to guard its interests in Lebanon and to serve as a vanguard against Israel.
However, the frightful Israeli military response likely left Hezbollah more damaged than it’s willing to let on, and its enemies smelled blood in the water. This wasn’t something Hezbollah could allow.
“Hezbollah is more concerned, more weakened,” said Reinoud Leenders, a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Beirut. The walkout, the threats and the demands, he said, are intended to tie up the political process in Beirut and buy them time to rearm. “This ‘unity government’ is clearly designed to paralyze any decision-making process.”
Not so, counters Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah member of parliament but not a cabinet member. By walking out, he says, they are following in the tradition of democracy in which opposition parties don’t take part in government.
“I don’t think this is very dangerous,” he said, but added that elections aren’t scheduled until 2009 and that’s too long to wait for the pro-Syrian bloc. “Why should we wait when we don’t have any power in the government?” he asked.
He played down the possibilities of street protests, which have been effective weapons for Hezbollah in the past. “Maybe it will come later,” he said.
But with these latest developments, Lebanon has found itself back in an unwelcome role: as a battlefield for regional and global powers to play out their conflicts. With Iran and Syria backing Hezbollah and its allies, and the U.S. and the West backing the Siniora government, Lebanon’s political crisis is a another battle in the new cold war shaping up between Iran and the United States for dominance in Southwest Asia and its oil.

*Personal observations:*
The feeling here is one of nervous tension among the Sunnis and the anti-Syrian Christians (mainly Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces) and confidence among the Shi’ites and their allies, including the Christian Michel Aoun. (He really wants to be president and sees an alliance with Hezbollah as the way to get there.)
Ultimately, however, this is a proxy battle in the current tussle between the U.S.-Western alliance, which includes Europe, Israel and the United States, and an Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. This is an idea I’ve been promoting for most of 2006. The idea was sparked by the May _contretemps_ between Hezbollah and Israel following the assassination of two Islamic Jihad members in Saida and a couple of Katyushas got tossed at Israel in retaliation. The Jewish state responded harshly, with air raids across the south, causing Hezbollah to counter-strike.
I said at the time, “Iran’s activities in Lebanon are part of its larger plans for the region. By working through and with local Shiite communities, which are found in Bahrain, Iraq, eastern Saudi Arabia and stretching through Syria to Lebanon and Israel’s northern frontier, Tehran is well on its way to creating a ‘Shiite Crescent’ — a regional axis that allows it to hold most of the cards in any confrontation with the United States or Israel. And nowhere else, with the possible exception of Iraq, is Iran so well positioned as in Lebanon.”
The May confrontation settled down after a day. But obviously tensions remained — until they finally boiled over July 12, when the Shi’ite militant group captured two Israeli soldiers and sparked a 34-day war that killed more than 1,200 people and left up to 4,000 wounded. Lebanon was devastated by the Israeli air force, but Hezbollah emerged politically stronger.
Since then, they’ve been flexing their muscles and trying to force their way into position in the cabinet that would give them the veto over any decisions — a recipe for governmental gridlock that would maintain their freedom to do what they please in the south without interference from the U.S.-backed Siniora government.

Muted reaction to mid-terms in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Reaction to the American mid-terms was muted in Beirut, a city still shell-shocked from the summer war with Israel and consumed by its own domestic political drama.
Much of Lebanon’s attention is focused not on American politics, but its own, which are dominated by roundtable talks taking place this week among the country’s powerful feudal lords who preside over their own sectarian fiefdoms.
“The Lebanese are reading the tea leaves as best they can,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Middle East Center for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Beirut. “The (anti-Syrian) March 14 movement is fearing the loss of U.S. power and the other side is relishing the loss of US power.”
The “other side” is the pro-Syrian coalition made up of Hezbollah and its allies, which include the Free Patriotic Movement led by Maronite Christian Michel Aoun and a number of smaller parties. The roundtable talks are aimed at banging out a compromise on expanding the current government, a Hezbollah demand following the July-August war and its self-proclaimed “Divine Victory.”
The United States “will continue to back the March 14 government and the Siniora government,” Salem said. “That won’t change because both Democrats and Republicans agree on that.”
All across downtown, the commercial heart of Beirut, most people met the news that voters had delivered a sharp rebuke to President Bush with either blank stares or shrugs, despite widespread dislike for the administration’s policies and what is seen as unquestioning support for Israel. But among the Lebanese and expats who kept an eye on the elections, there was a palpable sense of satisfaction that the GOP had lost.
“The Democrats won so the authority can change in the U.S.,” said one man puffing on a waterpipe who declined to give his name. “There should be changes. There is not one region in the world that is comfortable with current American policies.”
Another man, Gabriel Abou Daher, 32, a television producer for a Beirut advertising agency, said he had been following the elections “closely” and was pleased with the results.
“It’s a message to President Bush over his international policies,” he said. “Maybe he will take another look at them.”
As for Lebanon, however, he is not expecting anything different. “We have seen both parties have the same policy regarding Israel,” Abou Daher said.
Others thought the Democrats would be even more pro-Israel.
“I get some satisfaction from seeing Bush get slapped in the face, but I don’t take any comfort in it,” said Marc Sirois, a Canadian and the managing editor for the English-language Daily Star newspaper. “The Democrats are more dependent on the pro-Israeli lobby for campaign funds and to get out the vote than the Republicans are.”
He also cautioned that Bush still had two years left in his term and he still has all the powers of the commander in chief “to do whatever he wants.”
“The only thing they (Congress) could do is cut the purse strings in Iraq,” he said.