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Lebanon at risk for war by proxy

Some fear impact of Iran, Syria

BEIRUT -- The Lebanese political crisis risks creating a new proxy conflict between Shia-dominated Iran, which supports Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab regimes allied with the United States.

This battle is an extension of a similar struggle between Iran and Arab governments over the future of Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime until the US invasion in 2003. But unlike Iraq, where the new Shia-dominated government has American support, Arab regimes could have a better chance of influencing events in Lebanon, where the US labels the main Shia party, Hezbollah, a terrorist group.

While Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his Cabinet remain besieged by thousands of protesters camped outside government offices in downtown Beirut, Arab and Western diplomats are making daily pilgrimages to meet with Saniora. The two major Arab powers, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are leading the charge to ensure Saniora's government does not collapse.

On Saturday, a day after 800,000 people rallied in Beirut demanding Saniora's resignation, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt revealed the extent of Sunni Arabs' worry. He warned against "foreign powers," code for Iran and its ally, Syria, supporting Lebanese Shia and prompting Arab governments to support the Sunnis.

"What I fear is that, if the protests continue and take on a sectarian form, supporters of these sects from outside Lebanon will join in and no one will be able to control it," Mubarak said. "And the result will be a transformation of Lebanon into a battlefield that subjects it to potential destruction."

When protesters blockaded the Grand Serail, the Ottoman-era palace that houses Saniora and much of his Cabinet, on Friday night, Egyptian and Saudi diplomats pressured the speaker of parliament, a Hezbollah ally, to remove demonstrators from one road leading into the palace.

"It's not acceptable that a government is placed under siege in that way," Mubarak said.

The growing ambitions of Iran, which wields great influence over the Shia government in Iraq and over Hezbollah, is fueling tensions between Shia and Sunnis. Iran also supports the militant Sunni group Hamas, which swept Palestinian elections in January and now controls the government.

"Lebanon has become the latest stage for confrontation between the so-called Iranian-Syrian axis and the conservative Arab regimes backed by Washington," said Talal Salman, editor of As-Safir, a leftist Beirut daily. "Many Arab regimes are also uneasy about the military success of Hezbollah."

After Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, Israel launched its most intense attack since it invaded Lebanon in 1982. During the 34-day war that ensued, Hezbollah fired thousands of Iranian- and Syrian-made rockets at northern Israel. While Israeli bombing destroyed large swaths of Shia-dominated southern Lebanon and Beirut suburbs, Hezbollah emerged with its military capability largely intact. In much of the Arab world, it was seen as having scored a victory against a far superior Israeli military.

Although Hezbollah and its charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, became heroes in the Arab street, many Sunni governments are fearful of rising Shia power and Iran's influence. Analysts note that Arab rulers such as Mubarak, who ruthlessly suppress any sign of dissent in their countries, are worried that if the Lebanese government is toppled by Hezbollah's mass protests, that will embolden other Arab populations.

"The disconnect between Arab masses and their rulers is growing wider," said Mohammad Abdullah, a prominent Lebanese writer. "Hosni Mubarak doesn't want to see a popular movement unseating an Arab government."

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