Rival factions in Lebanon have agreed to re-launch a national dialog after fierce fighting between Hezbollah militants and pro-government militias killed at least 65 people and wounded at least 200 in the worst violence since the nation's civil war. The talks are aimed at electing a new president and forming a unity government. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this background report from Washington.
Until recently, Lebanon's ongoing political crisis has been mostly, political, with the various factions working to keep the ever-present sectarian issues in the country from exploding into violence.
However, last week's fighting has again stoked some of the same sectarian tensions that led to Lebanon's 15-year long civil war that ended in 1990.
Mona Yacoubian, the director of the Lebanon Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace, just returned from a research trip to Lebanon.
"Many people told me that the elements are in place for a civil war in Lebanon. They talked about sectarian rearming, particularly amongst the Sunnis, discourse that is deeply polarized, strong enmity and mistrust among sects, which I would argue now has further deepened," she said.
The recent fighting was triggered by government decisions to close Hezbollah's private telecommunications network and replace the Beirut airport's security chief, a Hezbollah ally.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah considered the moves a declaration of war and sent his fighters into the streets, with Hezbollah-backed Shi'ite Muslims fighting government-backed Sunni groups.
The fighting died down after the government withdrew its anti-Hezbollah decisions.
"The government is pretty much isolated, under siege. Some of them are being bumped off (murdered) left and right. It is a pretty difficult state of mind for them. Same thing with Hassan Nasrallah probably and his security chief who are somewhere protecting themselves in a bunker," said Emile Hokayem, who focuses on Lebanese politics and security as a research fellow at the Henry Stimson Center.
The United States backs the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
U.S. President George Bush blames Iran and Syria for creating instability in Lebanon by trying to bring down the democratically elected government. "Hezbollah, the so-called protector of the Lebanese against Israel, has now turned on its own people. And as you mention, Hezbollah is supported by Iran. This is an Iranian effort to destabilize that young democracy. The United States stands strongly with the Siniora government," he said.
The current political impasse in Lebanon dates from November 2006, when Hezbollah, after fighting a month-long war with Israel, pulled its ministers from a coalition cabinet, demanding greater political power.
Lebanon has not had a president since last November, and Hezbollah continues to demand veto power over government decisions.
Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and diplomatic correspondent for the USA Today newspaper, believes Hezbollah will not use its military might to overthrow the government.
"I do not think Hezbollah wants a civil war, a full-fledged civil war. They are still rebuilding after 2006. Their constituency was hurt very much by the Israeli bombing and all of the chaos at that time. They want to intimidate people, obviously, but they do not want to have to go all the way. So the effort should be made to find a way to help people pullback from the brink," he said.
The Lebanese government and the opposition have agreed to an Arab League proposal to remove armed militiamen from the streets and to refrain from using violence to achieve political gains.
Yacoubian says maintaining a peaceful atmosphere in Lebanon will be difficult. "It is unfortunately a culture at this point that has this sort of militaristic, violent undercurrent to it. The challenge for those in Lebanon, outside of Lebanon, is to help the Lebanese to deescalate and to move toward the only thing that can bring lasting peace and stability, a political solution," she said.
Yacoubian says mediation efforts should focus on implementing confidence-building measures to help bridge the gap between the conflicting parties and begin the long road to a political consensus in Lebanon.