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Lebanese Debate Identity, Foreign Ties

In the current Lebanese political divide, each side accuses the other of being more loyal to other countries than to Lebanon. The pro-government side says Hezbollah and its opposition allies are beholden to Syria and Iran, while the opposition accuses the government of being an agent of the United States. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

Opposition street protests demanding a unity government with greater opposition representation have dragged on for more than a week, and neither side is showing any signs of backing down. On the contrary, the political rhetoric has become angrier, and the popular tensions greater. Each side accuses the other of being agents of hostile foreign powers.

Carnegie Endowment visiting fellow Amal Saad-Ghorayeb says Lebanon's struggle is both internal and external.

"You know, it is essentially a struggle over Lebanon's political identity. That is a very general theme," she said. "That is what binds the two sides together. The March 14 forces see the opposition as being Iranian, Syrian proxies. And the opposition sees March 14 as being American instruments."

For both sides, those outside ties strike deep emotional chords.

The government coalition is known as the March 14 movement, after the massive protests that drove Syria out of Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That side holds Syria responsible for not just Hariri's killing, but a string of other assassinations of anti-Syrian figures, most recently the minister of industry, Pierre Gemayel.

They are calling for an international tribunal to prosecute the alleged killers. Syria opposes the idea, and says it may not cooperate, if a tribunal is created.

Syria is one of Hezbollah's staunchest backers. In the Beirut neighborhood of Tarek Jdideh, a March 14 stronghold, Nabil Kawwa says he thinks the tribunal is the real reason Hezbollah is holding these protests now.

"They are protecting Syria from truth," he said. "They are protecting Syria from truth. This is it, this is the main. Nothing else."

Hezbollah insists that the tribunal is not the main reason it is calling for a national unity government. But former U.N. spokesman Timor Goksel says, in many people's minds, the two issues are inextricably linked. He says the opposition wants veto power in the Cabinet, so issues like the tribunal cannot be passed over its objections.

"By harping on the tribunal, they are seen as staunch defenders of the Syrian cause in Lebanon, and this is not going down very well with the public here," he noted. "And it's a very touchy subject for Hezbollah, to be seen as the sole representative of the Syrian interest here. This is one thing they don't want to be seen [as], because they were never all that close to Syria anyway. They had a convergence of interests over the years."

At the same time, the heavy losses that Lebanon - and especially the Shi'ite population - suffered in Hezbollah strongholds during the war with Israel in July and August has made life uncomfortable for the government, which has strong backing from the United States and other Western nations. During the war, despite the daily pleas of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and other members of his government, Washington refused to call for an immediate ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel, saying a comprehensive approach was needed.

"This adds a very sort of emotional, not only a political, tinge to this divide," added Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. "It is very difficult for Hezbollah and its allies, for the opposition, to see this government as being autonomous in any sense of the term. Not only before the war, but especially after this war, when this American-backed government during the war was unable to get any assistance from the United States. So, it came as a very big surprise to many Lebanese, actually, not only in the opposition, that the government would consider allying itself again with the United States, after the U.S. completely abandoned its Lebanese allies."

Many of the issues currently at stake in the political standoff were there before the war began, but analysts say that war exacerbated the already serious political gulf.

When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed the protesters Thursday night, he accused government leaders of actually conspiring with Israel during the war. Those allegations have become a common refrain at the demonstrations, and both the government and the army have made repeated efforts to counter them.

In the Tarek Jdideh neighborhood, Nabil Kawwa says he feels betrayed by the opposition's anti-government protests.

"Israel, yes, Israel, it's our enemy," he said. "But it's there! It's not in the middle of Beirut."

He recalls that he and his Sunni neighbors sheltered Shi'ites from the south during the war.

"We bring them food," he added. "We opened houses for them. We did everything to help them. We are Muslims, like them. They shouldn't do this."

He also has harsh words for Iran, Hezbollah's other main backer.

On the other side, Shi'ite protester Issam Haraka has similarly harsh words about the prime minister:

"He's saying we are listening to foreign orders, but he should look to himself," he said. "He is following American orders and French orders, OK?"

And the allegations continue to go round and round. Some analysts and media reports have called the Lebanese political crisis a proxy dispute between Iran and the United States. But analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb says it is not that simple.

"I think it's very oversimplistic to consider this as a proxy war," she noted. "What we're seeing in Lebanon today is essentially, at its core, an internal struggle for political power, which is supported by different national sides."

The question now is whether the leaders of Lebanon's many factions can find enough common ground to end the crisis peacefully.