A New Civil War in Lebanon?

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Comrades from the Shiite Amal party and relatives of Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, who was killed Sunday during clashes between groups of Shi'ites and Sunnis, carry his coffin in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon.

Angry Shi'ite mourners punch the air with their fists and chant vows of revenge as the coffin of Ahmad Mahmoud passes by, draped in the Lebanese national flag and sprinkled with rose petals. Shot dead Sunday evening during street fighting between Sunni and Shi'ite youths, the 20-year-old Mahmoud is being lionized by the Hizballah-led opposition as the first "martyr" of its protest campaign to topple the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. But some Lebanese fear that Mahmoud may be remembered as the first casualty of a new civil war.

Mahmoud's death has ignited long-simmering tensions between Shi'ite and Sunni communities, which have even begun to eclipse Lebanon's more familiar Christian-Muslim divide and instead parallels the sectarian schism throughout the Middle East that has been reopened by the conflict in Iraq.

"It's obvious now that there is a very serious problem between Shi'ites and Sunnis. And I think it's going to get worse," says Mohammed Attar, 25, one of several thousand mourners attending Mahmoud's funeral at the "Two Martyrs" cemetry in Beirut's Shi'ite-dominated southern suburbs. As Mahmoud's coffin is carried into the pine-tree lined cemetery, the mourners slap their foreheads, a Shi'ite gesture of mourning, and chant, "Far and wide, the Shi'ites will shake the ground."

A very different sentiment is aired nearby in the mainly Sunni district of Tarek Jdeide, where a group of laughing young men chant crude insults at Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's charismatic leader. "If the Shi'ites topple the government, Hizballah will take power and we will have a Shi'ite state, but we won't let that happen," says Yussef Beydoun, 21. "Tarek Jdeide will continue to be a citadel of resilience against the Shi'ites."

The Shi'ites, a traditionally neglected and impoversished segment of Lebanese society, are generally thought to represent the largest of Lebanon's 18 sects, though a recent survey of eligible voters put their numbers at about the same as the Sunni population, at around 30% each. Census figures, however, are unreliable and potentially explosive in a country where top positions are apportioned according to sect, which explains why there has been no official survey of the Lebanese population since 1932.

Although a Shi'ite, Mahmoud lived in the Sunni neighborhood of Tarek Jdeide. While mourning pictures of Mahmoud plaster the ochre-colored wall of his simple two-story home, most of the drab apartment buildings and storefronts carry posters of slain prime minister Rafik Hariri or of his son, Saad, displaying their allegiance the Sunni political leadership. Mahmoud was killed on his way home from a mass sit-in downtown, where tens of thousands had demanded the ouster of the government.

Local residents say he was killed by fellow Shi'ites who had been rampaging through the district. "I think they shot him because they thought he was a Sunni," says Mustafa Jaroushi, 21. But the Shi'ites of the nearby district of Shiyah blame Hariri's Sunni supporters for Mahmoud's death, saying residents of Tarek Jdeide threw stones and fired shots at them as they passed the neighborhood on their way home from the sit-in.

Whatever the truth behind Mahmoud's death, it was not an isolated incident but came amid outbreaks of violence in several mixed Sunni-Shi'ite areas of Beirut this week that have left dozens injured and inflamed sectarian tensions. Hundreds of Lebanese troops have deployed in Beirut's trouble spots. But using the Lebanese Army in this way is untenable, warned its commander, General Michel Suleiman. Suleiman says that sectarian violence "drains the army's resources and weakens its neutrality," and warned, "This weakness will make the army unable to control the situation in all areas of Lebanon."

The Sunni-Shi'ite battle is also being fought out on the airwaves, where the Hariri-owned Future TV and Hizballah's Al-Manar network have been accusing their sectarian rivals of stoking the conflict. A key Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ali al-Jozo, the mufti of Mount Lebanon, has repeatedly attacked Hizballah, describing Nasrallah as a "dictator" and accusing him of advancing a foreign, Syrian-Iranian agenda.

The Sunni regimes of the Middle East, fearing that their traditional dominance of the Arab world is being challenged by an expansionist Shi'ite Iran in coordination with allies such as Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, have rallied to support Siniora's embattled government, underlining the sense that there is more at stake than a parochial tussle over power sharing in Lebanon.

Talal Salman, editor of Lebanon's As Safir newspaper, wrote Tuesday that this Arab backing for Siniora has increased the defiance of the Hizballah-led opposition, making "an inter-Lebanese solution to the crisis out of reach."

Still, the notion of a "Shi'ite crescent" emerging in the Middle East may be based more on Sunni fears than Shi'ite ambitions. The anti-Western alliance, which includes Sunni Palestinians, is more political than religious in nature, motivated by antipathy toward Israel and a determination to rid the region of U.S. influence. Hizballah calculates that by toppling the Western-backed government in Beirut, U.S. influence in Lebanon and the wider region will be curbed. The conflict playing out in Lebanon, then, may not simply be based on the country's age-old sectarian tensions, but in a regional power struggle that pits the U.S. and its Sunni-Arab allies against Iran and its anti-Western Arab partners. And that may be why Ahmad Mahmoud is unlikely to be the last casualty of Lebanon's political turmoil.