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In Lebanon, Sectarian Tensions May Endure Even if Political Deal is Reached

Lebanese political leaders traveled to Qatar on Friday for talks on ways to end the country's long-running political crisis. But even if they reach a power-sharing deal, many Lebanese say the recent sectarian fighting has done serious damage to their ability to live together. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

If anyone in the region can bridge the ideological divide between the two sides, it may well be the leaders of Qatar, the tiny Gulf country that has good relations with all the foreign backers of the Lebanese factions.

Most observers expect the talks to take some time, and there is significant skepticism about whether they will actually produce a power-sharing deal. But even if a political settlement does emerge, the sectarian battles that raged in Beirut, the Chouf mountains and the northern city of Tripoli may have made it harder for Lebanese of different sects to go back to living and working side-by-side. In a country that has spent 18 years trying to recover from a sectarian civil war, that is a troubling step backwards.

Bassel Salloukh teaches political science at Lebanese American University, and says the sectarian tensions have been building over the last three years, fueled by the political crisis that the leaders in Qatar are now trying to solve.

"It is not impossible to find a political settlement that would restabilize political institutions, which is what the Arab League and Sheikh Hamad [are] trying to do now. And as I said, it's not impossible. But what will have long-term damage is this kind of sectarian mobilization, sectarian chauvinism, the re-emergence of sectarian ghettoes in the country…. And my greatest fear is that if this sectarian rhetoric and sectarian discourse remains at the level it is right now, then we cannot put the sectarian genie back into the bottle," he said.

The clashes erupted from a political dispute, but the fighting quickly took on a deeply sectarian tone. Sunni and Shia Muslims battled in West Beirut, and then the fighting spread to the mountains, between Druze and Shia, and to the north, where Sunnis fought members of the Shi'ite Alawite sect.

Pro-government forces blame Shia militias for starting the violence, and some Sunni and Druze fighters seem to have taken out harsh reprisals against their foes. In the north, there were reports of summary executions of opposition members. In the Chouf mountains, Druze combatants mutilated the bodies of two dead Hezbollah fighters.

The fighting has inflamed the anger and resentment that has long plagued this country, and each side holds the other responsible. Trust between religious communities has always been a rare commodity in Lebanon, but now it seems to have evaporated entirely.

In the staunchly Sunni neighborhood of Tarek Jdideh, a 24-year-old mother of two named Dania said the events of last week changed the way she thinks about the Shia.

"Before this, I was against the ones who say I'm Sunni, I'm Shia. But now I hate the Shias very much, because every house in Beirut lost someone," she said.

Dania blames the Shi'ite militias who invaded her neighborhood for the change, but some of her resentment comes from earlier feelings of marginalization when she studied at a mainly Shi'ite university.

Analysts warn that Sunni anger toward the Shi'ite could fuel growth of the radical Salafist ideology that has already taken root in some parts of Lebanon. Salloukh says if al-Qaida-inspired militants start attacking the Shia, it could unleash "a nightmare scenario."

"Then all it takes is one suicide attack in the Dahiya, and we are on the road to Iraq, Lebanon becomes like Iraq. And this becomes very dangerous. I'm sure Hezbollah have thought about this scenario," he said.

It does seem clear that Hezbollah and its supporters are aware of that danger. Two senior Hezbollah officials in recent days have made a point of saying that their grievance is with the government, not with the Sunnis, but those statements have failed to convince many Sunnis.

Earlier this week, near a Shi'ite cemetery in south Beirut where Hezbollah had just buried two of its fighters killed in the mountains, 30-year-old Hussein Ghaddar said all of Lebanon is one family.

He said he blames Druze leader Walid Jumblatt for the death of the two Hezbollah fighters, but he says the slogans chanted at the funeral denounced Israel, not Jumblatt.

The statement seemed intended to show that Hezbollah supporters do not view their fellow Lebanese as their enemies.

But political scientist Salloukh indicates that words of reassurance may not be enough.

"Sectarian hatred cannot be erased, it cannot be wished away, it cannot be washed away. There is kind of an additive process here that accumulates and accumulates and accumulates. And what happened in the past days is a kind of a mini-explosion of this, which was contained, but the greatest fear is that if the bigger explosion happens, then what do you do?"

The next test will be the schools and universities, which are expected to reopen next week. Teachers and professors say they are apprehensive about bringing students from opposing political factions back together in the same classroom for the first time since the fighting erupted.