Saturday, January 27, 2007
By Robert Fisk
"This is how the 1975-90 conflict began in Lebanon. Outbreaks of sectarian hatred, appeals for restraint, promises of aid from Western and Arab nations and a total refusal to understand that this is how civil wars begin.
The Lebanese army lifted its overnight curfew on Beirut yesterday morning but the smouldering cars and trucks of a gun battle was matched only by the incendiary language of the country's bitterest antagonists. Beirut's morning newspapers carried graphic pictures of gunmen - Sunni Muslims loyal to the government and Shia supporters of Hizbollah - which proved beyond any doubt that organised, armed men are on the capital's streets. The Lebanese army - which constantly seeks the help of leaders on all sides - had great difficulty in suppressing the latest battles.
One widely-used picture showed a businessman firing a pistol at Shia during the fighting around the Lebanese Arab university, another a hooded man with a sniper's rifle on a rooftop.
All three dead men were Hizbollah supporters whose funerals in south Beirut and in the Bekaa Valley yesterday were accompanied by calls for revenge and - in one case - by a colour guard of militiamen and farewell shots over his grave. After 29-year old Adnan Shamas's widow and young children were brought to his funeral in Ouzai, there were cries of "blood for blood".
It was all very far from the self-congratulations of the western and Arab leaders in Paris yesterday, where European and American diplomats - after drumming up £4bn in aid for Lebanon (strings attached, of course) - seemed to believe they had just saved Fouad Siniora's government from the forces of Islamic "extremists".
Samir Geagea, the ex-civil war militia killer turned ardent government supporter - and host to the US ambassador this week - angrily turned on Hizbollah's leader, Sayad Hassan Nasrallah yesterday, chiding him over Hizbollah's war with Israel last summer, when Shia fighters fired thousands of rockets into Israel. "Don't think, Sayad Hassan, that Beirut is Haifa or Mount Carmel," he warned. "Let's sit together and we will discuss things together ... Otherwise the country is heading for the worst."
Talal Arslan, a pro-Syrian Druze leader, ferociously referred to government groups as an "organised crime syndicate" that wanted to turn Lebanon into another Iraq.
Which is exactly the language of 1975. It all seemed so far away in Paris where Siniora, talking to Lebanese residents and journalists, mystifyingly found himself fielding questions on Lebanon's agricultural industry and future tourism prospects. There is certainly plenty of history for any tourists in Lebanon but right now a new and terrible page appears to be opening while the rest of the world blithely looks on. "