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    Saturday, November 1, 2008

    Peace, for now

    Tripoli, Lebanon - Friday, Oct. 31

    War never feels very far away in this bustling coastal city in north Lebanon. The sun-whitened office buildings and apartment blocks are scarred by bullet holes, reminders of the last civil war in this deeply divided country. The streets are thick with soldiers and armoured personnel carriers, trying to prevent the next one.

    Lebanon very nearly slid back into internecine conflict six months ago, when fighters from the Shia Hezbollah militia, locked in a political dispute with the country's pro-Western government, briefly seized control of predominantly Sunni West Beirut. The civil war many have been predicting for some time might have begun then and there had there been another armed group capable of challenging Hezbollah.

    Since then, Lebanon's myriad factions have come to a political accord that has taken the fighters off the streets, at least until crucial elections next year that will go a long way to deciding whether this country tilts west to Washington and Paris, or east to Damascus and Tehran.

    An uneasy peace reigns for the moment, and nowhere is it more uncertain than in deeply religious Tripoli, where clashes between the city's Sunni majority and its Allawite minority remain a near-daily occurrence.

    "(The Sunnis), they throw grenades here and the Lebanese army tells us not to retaliate. We are preparing ourselves for a bigger attack," said Daniel Dayeh, a 25-year-old Allawite living in the tense Jebel Mohsen neighbourhood of Tripoli. He was sitting with a dozen other Allawite men, all unemployed, outside a coffee shop plastered with photographs of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who is also Allawite.

    Downhill from Jebel Mohsen, Mustafa Alloush splits his time between tending to his duties as chief surgeon at the city's Nini hospital and heading up the local branch of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement. Future fighters were routed by Hezbollah in Beirut back in May, and some in Tripoli sought revenge against the Syrian-backed Allawis in this city.

    "It's stable for now. The problem is that people do not believe it will stay as such," Alloush told me between patients at the Nini hospital. "People are waiting for something to happen."

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