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Lebanon Still Reeling From War, Assassinations

The past year has been a particularly troubled time in Lebanon. The country wrestled with political instability following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, and the subsequent mass protest movement that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops. 2006 was supposed to be a landmark year, when Lebanon was finally run by its own government, on its own terms. But the sudden outbreak of war in July shattered Lebanon's fragile stability and exposed political rifts that had long lingered under the surface. Middle East Correspondent Challiss McDonough looks at Lebanon's problems in this VOA yearend report.

It was supposed to be a good year, Lebanon's biggest tourist season ever, setting the economy firmly back on the path to recovery.

And then came the war.

On the July 12, Hezbollah fighters staged a raid across the Israeli border, capturing two Israeli soldiers. Israeli troops and tanks pursued them back into Lebanon, crossing the border in large numbers for the first time since Israel withdrew from the country six years earlier.

In the following days, the conflict widened.

For 33 days, Israeli aircraft and ships bombed Hezbollah targets: the group's strongholds in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel, and Israeli troops battled Hezbollah fighters on the ground inside Lebanon.

More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed, and an unknown number of Hezbollah fighters. Scenes like this one, when a woman collapsed in agony after learning of her brother's death, repeated themselves over and over.

Roughly one million residents of south Lebanon, nearly a quarter of the country's population, were displaced, taking shelter in the mountains and the north. They lived in school classrooms, city parks, relatives' homes, the homes of kind strangers.

Tens of thousands of people fled the country, including businessman Alec Yeverian and his family, who stood for hours waiting for an evacuation boat headed for Cyprus.

"I left Lebanon in 1975, when I was nine-years-old, and now I'm leaving with my children, 25 years later," he said. "I came back six years ago from Canada, built enterprises here, built employment, and now everything is stopped. What can I tell you? It's awful, disastrous for this country. And I hope that it will be solved quickly, because these people don't deserve it."

The Israeli military bombed Lebanon's infrastructure - bridges, roads, airport runways, ports and factories - so heavily that Economy and Trade Minister Sami Haddad said it was impossible to measure the impact.

"It is a massive disaster on all fronts," he said. "First and foremost on the humanitarian front, and obviously on the economic and social front."

Even then, Haddad and other ministers said they feared the war would weaken their already fragile government coalition, known as the March 14 Forces, which had been in power for only about a year, since Syrian troops withdrew in 2005.

"How is this massive attack on Lebanon's civilian population and our economy, how is it helping our government, our democracy and our institutions?" he asked.

During the war, the March 14 government-led and the Hezbollah-led opposition temporarily set aside their differences in the name of national unity as the country faced the crisis. Below the surface, however, analysts say the conflict sharpened already existing political differences.

In the months after the war, the disagreement and rancor between the two sides grew. Hezbollah felt its hand had been strengthened by the war, and it pushed for more power in government. In October, six opposition ministers resigned from the Cabinet, including all five Shi'ite representatives.

Two events in November brought tensions to a peak. The first was the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, the sixth anti-Syrian politician killed in the last two years. That heightened anger in the March 14 camp, especially among Christian followers of Gemayel's Phalange party.

The second event followed just a week and a half later, when hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in a mass antigovernment protest.

The protests were led by Hezbollah, but with heavy participation from its main Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement led by former General Michel Aoun. The opposition wants what it calls a national unity government, in which it would have enough Cabinet seats to veto key decisions.

They also want a new electoral law and early parliamentary elections. Analysts say this would likely strengthen the opposition bloc and possible give them an outright majority in parliament.

The March 14 Forces have their own demands. They want a new president to replace the pro-Syrian Emil Lahoud, and an international tribunal to try those accused of assassinating Gemayel, Hariri and other political figures.

Hezbollah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a visiting fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"So I think once an agreement is worked out, if and when it is worked out, it will necessarily have to include all these other outstanding issues as well, lest there be a buildup later on, and tensions again," he noted. "Even if they form a national unity government and no other issue is resolved, at a later date these other issues will resurface. So they have to solve them, I think, more or less at the same time."

As the protests went on, the rhetoric on both sides grew nastier, and clashes broke out between supporters of rival factions, who in the Muslim community are largely divided along sectarian lines. At least one Shi'ite opposition member was killed in fighting between Sunni government supporters and Shi'ite opposition activists, raising new fears that Lebanon could slip back into sectarian civil war. But Saad-Ghorayeb says the current political divide does not really fall along sectarian lines.

"I think it's very interesting that, as dangerous as this political divide currently is, I think one positive thing it's achieved is that you no longer see this very strict division between sect and political party. You do have crosscutting allegiances now, which never existed before," he explained. "And this could, I think, to some extent promote less communally-based politics in the future, [and more] more issue-based politics, perhaps. Perhaps we're seeing the emergence of that in a very nascent form, that identity politics could be replaced with issue-based politics in the future."

If and when Lebanon's political crisis is resolved, other issues remain. Postwar rebuilding has begun, but Hezbollah and the March 14 camp differ sharply over the reconstruction plan. In the final weeks of the year, thousands of families still have only U.N.-donated tents to shelter them from a bitterly cold winter.