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Beirut Residents Fear Renewed Violence

The Arab League has dispatched a delegation to Lebanon to try to resolve the crisis that has threatened to plunge the country back into civil war. Sectarian clashes killed more than 50 people in the past week. Although the capital was calm as the mediation efforts begin, residents are still bracing for more fighting. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

The Arab League delegation headed by Qatar is trying to mediate an end to the crisis that erupted into sectarian warfare on the streets of West Beirut last week and then spread to the mountains and the north.

A cease-fire has quieted most of the guns, and an eerie calm has descended upon the capital after the army took control of the disputed areas, but many residents continue preparing for the worst.

In the Tarek Jdideh neighborhood, a 29-year-old Sunni who asked to be called by his nickname, Abu Bakr, said he fought against Hezbollah and its allies until he ran out of ammunition. Despite the negotiations, he feels that Lebanon is moving toward all-out civil war.

He says "the guys" are all getting ready for a second round of fighting, because "you never know when they might attack again."

Residents of the staunchly Sunni neighborhood that was taken over by Shi'ite militias see the clashes as a clear-cut case of self-defense.

A grocery store owner who calls himself Abu Omar reaches behind his counter and pulls out an AK-47, wrapped in a cloth bag. He says he knows Hezbollah is stronger and better armed, but he would rather die than watch his neighborhood invaded again.

He says the Lebanese have a saying, "'The eye cannot resist a broken stick.' This is how it is for us; we know they are very strong, but if they are going to attack our areas, we are going to resist however we can."

"We never went and attacked the Dahiya," Hezbollah's stronghold in the southern suburbs, he said. "If they have a problem with the prime minister, why do not they attack him downtown? Why are they attacking us?"

That question has been echoed by government officials. But the opposition has been camped in protest outside the prime minister's office for a year and a half. Analysts say the sectarian clashes grew out of the political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon's institutions and left it without a president since November.

The fighting erupted after the government said it would shut down Hezbollah's private telecommunications network. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called it a declaration of war, saying it amounted to seizing Hezbollah's weapons.

Even some government supporters are now asking whether the government miscalculated. At the same time, Nasrallah has long vowed that Hezbollah would never use its weapons inside Lebanon, and his critics say the occupation of West Beirut has tarnished his reputation.

But after watching the funeral of two Hezbollah fighters in the Shia neighborhood of Ghobeiry, Hussein Ghaddar, 30, said he also sees it as a matter of self-defense.

"These weapons protect our country and our honor, and if they want to strip us of them, we will protect ourselves," he said.

Senior leaders of both sides appear eager to end the bloodshed, but unwilling to compromise on the issues that led to it.

On Tuesday, parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri accused the opposition of trying to impose their will on the country by force, and said he would never surrender to what he called a "Syrian-Iranian" plot to take control of Lebanon.

A day earlier, Hezbollah's chief political advisor Hussein Al-Khalil said the opposition would continue what he called its campaign of civil disobedience until the government reverses its decisions.

Timur Goksel was the longtime U.N. spokesman in Lebanon and now teaches political science at the American University of Beirut.

"There is no one talking," he said. "They are all waiting for some sort of external miracle, as always."

The Arab League delegation is trying to mediate a solution. In an effort to be unbiased, its delegation excludes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, which have backed the rival sides in the crisis. But Goksel says that approach is unlikely to solve the core issues.

"The only way this is going to be solved is not by the stupid Arab League," he added. "The Arab League cannot sort out its own salary problems. At the end, it is going to be sorted out between the Saudis and the Iranians."

But if the rhetoric exchanged between those two countries in recent days is any indication, Saudi Arabia and Iran do not appear inclined to compromise either. The Saudi foreign minister on Tuesday implied that Iran had sponsored what he called "a coup" by the Lebanese opposition, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected that allegation and blamed the violence on the United States, which has backed the government.