Razor wire and soldiers keep factions apart

Lebanese soldiers guard the razor wire barrier dividing Beirut’s rival political groups. (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

BEIRUT, 14 Feb 2007 (IRIN) - The girl was a veiled Sunni Muslim but waved the flag of the Lebanese Forces, once one of the country’s most powerful Christian militias. She was marking the second anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination with a call for the downfall of the Shia-led opposition, camping out less than 100 metres away.

“We are not afraid of Hassan Nasrallah,” said Elena Karaman, referring to the leader of the Islamist movement Hezbollah, which fought Israel in a month-long war last summer and has been demanding the resignation of the Western-backed Lebanese government.

“He had a hand in the murder of Hariri and so does not want to see the killers brought to justice. I hope Nasrallah just disappears to Iran,” said the 21-year-old student from the northern port city of Tripoli.

On a day when tens of thousands of mainly young people thronged the central square of the Lebanese capital to mark the anniversary of the murder of their Sunni former prime minister, Beirut once again became a city divided by politics and sect.

“It reminds me of Berlin. It’s like something back from the past,” said Mahmoud Assir, an IT programmer from Hariri’s home town of Sidon, as he looked across the rows of razor wire and armed soldiers that divided the pro-government rally from the Hezbollah-led opposition.

“Sooner or later they will have to take it down again, perhaps when President [Emile] Lahoud steps down.”

Fears of deadly clashes

With fears of a repeat of the deadly clashes last month between supporters and opponents of the government, Beirut was under a security lockdown for the anniversary.

Hundreds of armed soldiers controlled access to Martyr’s Square, where the pro-government ‘March 14’ alliance of Sunni, Druze and Christian groups gathered their supporters. At least half a dozen tanks occupied the main highway running east to west across Beirut and rows of razor wire were used to secure the central government buildings and to divide the two opposing groups.

Access to the Hezbollah-led opposition area in Riad al-Solh Square was tightly controlled by the Lebanese army, with only a few journalists allowed through. Hezbollah appeared to have moved the majority of its supporters away from the area for the day, leaving behind a few hundred young Shia men who lined the bridge overlooking downtown Beirut.

A Hezbollah security official who spoke to IRIN at the scene said the men were not allowed to speak to the press.

A general in the Lebanese army, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press, told IRIN that security for the day had been arranged with both sides beforehand.

“The strategy of the Internal Security Forces [ISF] and the army was on separating the two groups by barbed wire, obstacles, soldiers and ISF officers,” he said. “Each side also has their own security groups for control and there was a political decision that there should be no confrontation.”

Unity, cooperation and understanding

Political leaders urged reconciliation between Lebanon’s divided camps. To the sound of gunfire from Sunni-majority neighbourhoods, Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister, urged “unity, cooperation and understanding” and a government that “upholds the aspirations of all people”.

Syria was widely blamed for Rafik Hariri’s death — including in initial reports by the UN team investigating the killing — a charge Damascus has vehemently denied.

Hezbollah, which is strategically allied with Damascus, has led an opposition bloc that has so far refused to endorse the draft text of an international tribunal being set up to try Hariri’s killers. The move sparked accusations among the March 14 group that the Islamist group was seeking to defend Syria.

If Hezbollah don’t give their arms to the Lebanese army, there will be another war with Israel, and this time we won’t be welcoming any refugees from the south into our homes.

“The international tribunal is the only path to any solution,” Saad Hariri told the crowd. “So let them come to a courageous decision and let their words translate into deeds.”

Though few Lebanese at the pro-government rally expressed fears of sectarian and political differences sparking a return to all-out civil war, many were afraid of a renewed confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel and the cost to their country that would bring.

“We’re here to say to Hezbollah, ‘Get off our backs’,” said Rabea Khwais, a 24-year-old hotel worker from the Druze village of Kobah, in the Chouf Mountain. “If Hezbollah don’t give their arms to the Lebanese army, there will be another war with Israel, and this time we won’t be welcoming any refugees from the south into our homes.”

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