Saudi-Iran clash via Lebanese
Claude Salhani

The war between Sunnis and Shiites, that began several centuries ago in Mesopotamia, was re-ignited in modern Iraq following the US invasion. More recently it has spread to Lebanon, bringing that country dangerously close to the precipice of civil war once again.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bush warned of "an epic battle between Shiite extremists, backed by Iran, fighting Sunni extremists, aided by Al Qaeda.

"For America this would be a nightmare scenario," said Bush. He was, of course, talking about Iraq.

The Shiite-Sunni conflict in Lebanon is a very different kettle of fish. Lebanon's Sunnis enjoy the backing of the US, the EU, Saudi Arabia, and have even Israel secretly rooting for them. Remember, my enemy's enemy is a potential ally.

Lebanon's government, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni, was promised over $7.6 billion to help Lebanon rebuild from last summer's war between Israel and Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas. Welcoming the participants at a donor's conference in Paris, French president, Jacques Chirac, praised Siniora's "legitimate government," intending to send a clear signal to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah that the international community fully supports the Siniora government.

Among the offers, Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion and promised a further $100 million. The US pledged $770 million (pending Congressional approval). The World Bank pledged $700 million; the Arab Monetary Fund pledged $700 million (over five years); France pledged $649.4 million, under very favorable loan conditions; and the EU pledged $518 million.

Back in Beirut, the general strike called Tuesday by the Hezbollah-led opposition came after a 54-day opposition sit-in, and protests aimed to force the resignation of Siniora's government. It aspired to bring about a government of national unity, along with early elections. It failed.

Instead, Hezbollah's actions have taken Lebanon towards a schism that is reminiscent of the 1975 to 1990 civil war, with pro- and anti-Hezbollah students exchanging rocks ,and at times gunshots, and setting cars on fire at the Lebanese University.

Pro-government leaders, who include Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Samir Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces, accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of following orders from Syria and Iran.

In asking for a "national unity government," Hezbollah is in fact asking that it, and its allies, be given the power to veto any decision made by the government. They want this change to be able to sidetrack the tribunal meant to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been supportive of the Siniora government, while Iran (and Syria) have been edging Hezbollah along. But Nasrallah is reported to be losing popularity in Lebanon and the Arab world, almost as quickly as George W. Bush is losing his support in the US.

Now that Hezbollah has lost its bases in south Lebanon to the Lebanese army and the revamped UNIFIL, the Shiite organization needs to prove itself as a relevant force, or risk perishing. Both Damascus and Tehran felt the need to intervene so that the point of no return is not crossed. Beirut's Daily Star newspaper quotes Lebanese government sources as saying that Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently engaged in trying to find a solution to the crisis in Lebanon.

Earlier, Ali Larijani, an Iranian official traveled to Damascus in order to get Syria's point of view. According to a Lebanese daily, the Syrians set several conditions.

Firstly, that the UN complete its investigation into the Hariri assassination before the establishment of the tribunal that will try the case. By that time the pro-Syrian faction within the Lebanese government would be in the majority, with the power to veto any decision it objects to.

Secondly, that the new government endorses the tribunal once again, effectively allowing Syria's allies to have a say in the court proceedings.

To this the Saudis said "no." Nasrallah, in reply, ordered his people to the streets. "If the benchmark of success was Hezbollah's ability to close roads, then Tuesday was indeed successful. However, that weapon has now been used up, and the government remains in place. The next time the opposition threatens to do something similar, we might as well load the guns, or head for the shelters," writes Michael Young in the Daily Star.

"The last six months have been a period of meltdown for Hezbollah," said Young. "The party has been neutralized in the south, at least for the moment. Its reputation in the Arab world lies in tatters because it is seen as an extension of Iran. Domestically, Hezbollah is viewed more than ever as a menace to national co-existence and civil peace. Few Lebanese, other than Hezbollah's own, believe that its insistence on participating in the political process means respect for the latter's rules, free from foreign interests, and none of Nasrallah's political rivals trust him anymore."

In Paris Thursday the international community reaffirmed the Siniora government as the legally elected government. It was a badly needed boost in the arm for Lebanon, as it enforces its first nighttime curfew since 1973.

Claude Salhani is Middle East Times' Editor and International Editor at UPI. He wrote this article for United Press International.