- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

BEIRUT — A series of bombings in Christian neighborhoods over the past two weeks has frozen street life in this usually bustling capital and raised fears of a return to the sectarian violence of the 15-year Lebanese civil war.

Far from celebrating a weekend announcement that Syria will withdraw all its troops and intelligence agents by month’s end, Lebanese have virtually abandoned the bars, restaurants and other public places in downtown Beirut.

Political leaders say there is little chance the Christians will retaliate for the bombings, which have killed three foreign guest workers and wounded about 20 people. But many Lebanese are disquieted by the rising anger of hard-line Christian factions.

At least 10 armed civilians wearing camouflage clothing and crucifixes along with tattoos commonly associated with right-wing Christian militia movements turned up Friday night at the scene of the latest bombing, which wounded 12 persons in a Christian East Beirut suburb.

No one has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, and suspicions have been raised that Syria is sowing the violence to prove its troops are needed to maintain stability. But Beirut’s Muslims are increasingly worried about being blamed.

“The first time one of these bombs kills a Christian, there’s going to be trouble,” said one Sunni Muslim who agreed to be identified only as Omar. “I will not be going to East Beirut after that happens. It’s like we’re back in 1976 again. I might go back to France.”

The presence of what appear to be Christian militiamen at bombing scenes also has unnerved Lebanese Muslim journalists. Muslim photographers have told at least one major news organization that they no longer will cover bombings in Christian neighborhoods.

The resulting slowdown in Beirut’s tourist spots and nightclubs has begun to hurt economically, prompting cafes, bars and restaurants to lay off employees or cut wages.

Anti-Syrian sentiment also shows signs of driving out large numbers of Syrian guest workers, removing a critical source of low-wage labor. Several attacks on guest workers have been reported in the southern city of Sidon, home to assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Habib Malik, an American University historian who sympathizes with the anti-Syrian opposition movement, said the tension and economic setbacks are exactly what the bombers intended.

“The dire economic consequences and the like are part of the lost momentum for the opposition that they want to see,” he said. “Things will continue to be done to put pressure on the opposition and to make them look bad.”

So far, the Sunni, Christian and Druze communities have remained largely unified with the opposition, while leaders of the Shi’ite Muslim community that predominates in southern Lebanon have remained loyal to Syria.

The militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which remains a heavily armed presence near the Israeli border, has accused the opposition of working toward U.S. and Israeli goals.

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