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In postwar Lebanon, Shiites push for political power

In postwar Lebanon, Shiites push for political power

Iraq's Shiites owe their new power over the government to the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago. Many Lebanese Shiites would similarly like Israel's summer war with Hezbollah to be the seed of their political ascendancy.
Hezbollah's performance against a far superior Israeli army has bolstered the militia's standing within Lebanon's Shiite community, and across the Arab world.
Now, filling the center of Beirut with daily rallies, Hezbollah is pressing for a larger say in the running of Lebanon and an end to the Shiites' history of being poor and oppressed.
"Hezbollah wants to change the political role of the Shiites from being led to leading and having a greater influence on decision-making," said Magnus Ranstorp, a Middle East expert who monitors the Lebanese group.
However, granting Shiites more power could mean rearranging the delicate political balance struck to bring an end to Lebanon's 15 years of civil war in 1990. And Christians and Sunni Muslims _ some of them deeply upset that Hezbollah provoked the summer war by capturing two Israeli soldiers on Israel's own territory _ strongly oppose any such change.
Some fear the push for more Shiite power could re-ignite the civil war. The struggle for power also could affect the wider Middle East since events in Lebanon _ with just 4 million people _ seem to have outsized consequences. Its 1975-90 civil war at various times drew in Israelis, Syrians, Iranians and military forces from the U.S. and several European nations.
And while Hezbollah has Christian allies on its side, the fight over Lebanon's future still is seen largely as a proxy battle between Iran, a Shiite theocracy backing Hezbollah, and the United States, which is supporting the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a Sunni.
Shiites complain that the power-sharing formula ending the civil war _ an updating of the 1940s scheme melding various Christian and Muslim faiths into an independent Lebanon _ doesn't match the reality of the Shiites as the largest single sect, perhaps a third of the population.
"What we have in Lebanon now is a sectarian formula, and that is the real problem Lebanon is facing," said a senior Hezbollah official, Sheik Mohammed Kawtharani. "The pact (that ended the civil war) is like a time bomb."
The current formula requires that the president be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament _ the weakest of the leadership posts _ a Shiite.
To increase Shiite power, Hezbollah and its allies are demanding a veto-wielding share in a "national unity" government. On Dec. 1, they set out to force change, staging a massive sit-in outside government offices in Beirut and an open-ended series of demonstrations since.
"We are a people that will not be defeated in the battle of wills," Hezbollah's charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, told hundreds of thousands of supporters in early December. "We will not leave the streets before achieving the goal that saves Lebanon."
Lebanon's Shiites have grown more assertive partly because of the new power of their fellow Shiites in Iraq. In the aftermath of last summer's war, too, Hezbollah became synonymous with Lebanon's Shiites more than ever. The other main Shiite group, the more secular and older Amal Movement, was largely eclipsed.
But critics caution that Hezbollah could strive too hard, too fast and falter in Lebanon's often treacherous politics.
Hezbollah's opponents already have accused it of serving the interest its patrons, Iran and Syria, more than of Lebanon. "We don't want Lebanon to be an arena of the wars of others," Prime Minister Saniora said earlier this month.
Critics also charge that Hezbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers spurred widespread Israeli bombing of Lebanon's highways, bridges and electrical system. The extent of the damage also could force Hezbollah to avoid picking another fight with Israel for years, stopping it from using the military prowess on which it built its reputation.
Sateh Noureddine, a Shiite expert on Hezbollah and managing editor of Beirut's As-Safir newspaper, sees Hezbollah facing many challenges as the business of war becomes the more complicated business of politics.
At peace, Noureddine said, "Hezbollah is a much smaller force than it seems at times of war."


Updated : 2021-02-26 16:02 GMT+08:00