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Sectarian clashes follow general strike
U.S. drives conflict in Lebanon

By Lee Sustar | February 2, 2007 | Page 12

WESTERN GOVERNMENTS and the media are blaming Hezbollah for violent clashes in Lebanon amid a general strike on January 23. But in truth, the U.S. and its allies are driving the confrontation in Lebanon--with their economic, political and military support for an unrepresentative government dominated by minority Christians.

The U.S. is trying to achieve diplomatically and economically what its ally Israel failed to do militarily in last summer's blitz against Lebanon--break the power of Hezbollah, the dominant force among Shiite Muslims, Lebanon's largest religious group.

The general strike--called by Hezbollah and its Christian allies led by former Gen. Michel Aoun--was called off after three people were killed as strike supporters blockaded streets along the lines of the sectarian divide seen in the 1975-90 civil war. Two days later, four people died in a shootout between Shiite and Sunni Muslims at Beirut Arab University.

The strike was portrayed by most mainstream journalists as simply a power play by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is attempting to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni Muslim who rules with right-wing Christian parties.

However, Hezbollah is also tapping wider social discontent over a series of economic and social measures pushed by Western governments, which recently agreed to prop up the Siniora government with $7.6 billion in aid.

The money is contingent on a "structural adjustment" program spelled out by the International Monetary Fund. "The reform package includes cuts in public expenses, the privatization of the state telecommunications operator, restructuring of the loss-making Compagnie Electricite du Liban, and reforms in pensions and social security," noted Mattias Creffier of the Inter Press Service.

The program also includes an increase in the regressive value-added tax from 10 percent to 12 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2010.

This attack on workers and the poor has spurred the opposition of unions and the Lebanese left, and added a class and social element to the political struggle.

A 19-year-old woman who supports Hezbollah explained to Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper that she supported the general strike to protest the government's economic policy of "hunger and poverty." "There has never been a policy that the people can really benefit from," she said. "You do not have a middle class. It is either an extremely rich class or an extremely poor one. This is unacceptable."

While the foreign aid is ostensibly aimed at helping Lebanon's reconstruction after Israel's massive bombing damage last year, the money will in large part refinance part of Lebanon's $40 billion debt--a figure that is almost twice Lebanon's annual gross domestic product.

Also included in the package is $770 million from the U.S.--two-thirds of which is slated for weaponry to try to give the Lebanese armed forces more military muscle than Hezbollah.

The aid package is the latest phase of the U.S.-Israeli drive to eliminate Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon, an effort that began in 2005 with a series of protests by middle-class Lebanese that compelled Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon, where they had military bases since the 1970s.

Syria's pullout cleared the way for Israel's 34-day war on Lebanon in July 2006. Israel and the U.S. initially calculated that even if the war failed to crush Hezbollah, the resulting turmoil in Lebanese society would lead to a backlash against it.

Instead, Hezbollah gained wider support, and took the political initiative in November when five of its ministers in the government resigned, along with a Christian ally.

Hezbollah is calling for the resignation of Siniora, who rules in accordance with a sectarian political formula under which Lebanon's president must always be Christian, and its prime minister a Sunni Muslim. The crisis heightened in November with the assassination of a Christian government minister, Pierre Gemayel of the far-right Phalange party, by unknown attackers.

It's still possible that Lebanese political parties could negotiate an agreement on a new government--which is the stated goal of Hezbollah's Nasrallah. Talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia were also reportedly aimed at brokering such a deal.

But the high-profile donors' conference in Paris organized by the U.S. had precisely the opposite aim--of shoring up Siniora and shutting out Hezbollah. "As the defenders of a largely indefensible status quo, it is only natural that [Siniora's government] would prefer not to define that which they mean to preserve, relying instead on emotional appeals to buzzwords like 'democracy' and 'sovereignty,'" an editorial in the Daily Star pointed out.

With the U.S. behind him, Siniora has the confidence to keep stonewalling any real talks with Hezbollah--which will only tend to deepen the crisis in Lebanon.

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