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Beirut burning

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8 May 2008 15:42

Images of burning tyres and news of armed clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters in areas of Beirut on Wednesday make for sobering reading. While the clashes erupted on a day that the General Labour Confederation had called for a national strike, the industrial action merely provided the stage for sectarian grievances to be played out.

In the days leading up to the strike, the government had been ratcheting up the pressure on Hizbullah. First came accusations aired by the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt that Hizbullah had installed camera equipment at Beirut airport to monitor the movements of government officials (the government removed the head of airport security Brigadier-General Wafiq Shoukair, a Shi’a). Then cabinet decided to investigate a private telecommunications network that Hizbullah operated inside Lebanon. Outside the country, US officials in Iraq this week accused Hizbullah of training Iraqi Shi’a insurgents inside Iran.

Whether deliberately timed or not, the Lebanese Government and US accusations are aimed at exploiting Hizbullah’s weakness within the Lebanese political system – that rather than the Lebanese nationalist organization it claims to be, it is a stalking horse for Iranian and Syrian interests. With their self-absorbed Christian ally Michel Aoun apparently losing his own community’s support, Wednesday’s actions have taken on worrying sectarian overtones. By highlighting Hizbullah’s political and ideological contradictions with the Lebanese state, allied with Aoun’s waning political credibility, the government may be forcing Hizbullah and its Shi’a ally Amal into circling their sectarian wagons. As Wednesday’s events showed, this could prove to be a dangerous tactic.

Photo (of a Hizballah poster featuring its leader, Hassan Nasrallah) by Flickr user delayed gratification, used under a Creative Commons licence.