Lebanon finally gets a government -- but the killing goes on

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Two suicide bombers killed five people in a Hezbollah-controlled district of Beirut Wednesday, graphically underlining how Lebanon, though it now has a government of "national interest" after 11 months of political gridlock, is increasingly becoming a battlefield between Sunni and Shiite militants.

That's essentially the nature of the conflict engulfing large swaths of the Arab world these days.


The escalating attacks in Lebanon are most marked in Beirut, the divided northern city of Tripoli and the Bekaa-Hermel region in the northeast are a spillover from the sectarian bloodbath in neighboring Syria that in March lurches into its fourth year.

Syria's the cockpit of wider regional head-butting that is primarily a confrontation between Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom that as the birthplace of Islam considers itself the heart of the Muslim world, and Iran, land of the Arabs' ancient Persian enemy and the world's first Shiite republic.


Lebanon's rival sects have long been the instruments of competing regional powers and this leaves the tiny Mediterranean nation trapped in a post-Ottoman time warp, prey to the ambitions of others.

"Any political negotiation in Lebanon over the next several months will ultimately be shaped by Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the latter already deeply unnerved by the emerging U.S.-Iran relationship," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor cautioned.

"So long as Saudi Arabia tries to resist Iran's political rehabilitation through a proxy war in the Levant, negotiations in Lebanon will be prone to gridlock."

Lebanon's new, 24-member government announced Saturday ended 11 months of political paralysis triggered by the collapse of an all-party administration in March 2013.

It was brought down by Hezbollah, one of its main constituents, because the government had declared Lebanon's neutrality in the Syrian war in which the Iranian-backed Shiite movement had troops fighting to aid the beleaguered Damascus regime, Tehran's key Arab ally, against Sunni-led rebels.

Now Hezbollah has agreed to join a new government under Prime Minister Tammam Salam, a 68-year-old Sunni publishing tycoon and political moderate whose father Saeb was premier six times between 1952 and 1973.

That speaks volumes about how the members of the country's political elite rotate governments between themselves with metronomic regularity, and underlines the difficulties of introducing political reforms that could erode the sectarian rivalries that have straightjacketed Lebanon for decades.


There is some optimism the new government heralds a lessening of the violence, like Wednesday's bombings in Beirut's Beir Hassan district near the Iranian Cultural Center.

Oxford Analytica observed that the compromise deal between the two main political blocs in Lebanon, the pro-Syria March 8 coalition led by Hezbollah and the anti-Syria March 14 alliance led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Sunni Future Movement, "ends the longest episode of political paralysis Lebanon has experienced in decades...

"The formation of a power-sharing government between Lebanon's rival political camps is a significant advance in the huge challenge of reining in overspill of violence from Syria.

"An operational government will bolster efforts to contain Sunni insurgents within Lebanon and defuse sectarian tensions, improving the outlook for national stability in the short to medium term."

Wednesday's attacks were claimed by the Abdullah Azzam brigades, an al-Qaida offshoot and one of several Sunni jihadist groups that have been relentlessly bombing Hezbollah strongholds for months.

They've unleashed an unprecedented sectarian war in Lebanon against Hezbollah for participating in the Syrian conflict.

Judging by the backgrounds of several Sunni militants arrested in recent weeks by the Lebanese army, most likely with intelligence from Hezbollah, the groups are picking up plenty of recruits amid deepening Sunni disillusionment with their political leaders, Saad Hariri in particular.


Hariri has lived in self-imposed exile in France and Saudi Arabia since his government fell in 2011 because he fears for his life.

He has good reason. His billionaire father Rafik, Lebanon's leading statesman and five times premier, was assassinated in Beirut Feb. 14, 2005. Five Hezbollah members are being tried in absentia at a U.N.-mandated tribunal in the Netherlands for that killing.

And for all Hezbollah's firepower, it can't afford a shooting war on its own doorstep while its best troops are fighting in Syria.

So far, it has carefully calibrated its response. It has not unleashed large-scale retaliation against its Sunni tormentors in Lebanon, but the fear is that every bombing like Wednesday's takes Hezbollah closer to breaking point.

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