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In Lebanon, a season to forget about politics

BEIRUT, Lebanon — It's Christmastime in Lebanon. The piano player in the lounge at the Phoenicia Hotel is pounding out carols for an audience that includes many Muslims, judging by the head scarves. Along Hamra Street in the heart of Muslim West Beirut, the stores are wooing holiday shoppers to buy the latest fashions and electronic gadgets. The window displays of the local lingerie stores would make a Victoria's Secret salesgirl blush.

'Tis the season to be jolly, and that's true politically, too. This Christmas, unlike last, there are no Hezbollah demonstrators outside the office of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Thanks to the Doha accord, brokered by Qatar, Lebanon finally elected a president last May; a unity government was installed and the Hezbollah fighters disappeared from the streets. The underlying tensions are all still there, but there's a national resolve to forget about them for a while.

What's interesting about this yuletide calm is that the United States had almost nothing to do with it. Indeed, Lebanon seems to have entered its own version of the post-American era. And, frankly, many people seem content with this state of nonalignment.

I talked recently with the parties that battled for two years over Lebanon's identity — Prime Minister Siniora and Ibrahim Mousawi, Hezbollah's informal spokesman. One thing they seemed to agree on was that the Bush administration had not been good for Lebanon's health.

Siniora is one of my favorite people in the Middle East. By sheer stubbornness, he outlasted the little army of Hezbollah supporters who camped outside his headquarters.

When the political impasse was broken at Doha in May, a key part of the deal was that Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, would continue as prime minister. He had come to symbolize the secular, modern part of Lebanon that even Hezbollah accepts cannot be destroyed.

Siniora said he appreciates the Bush administration's support, but added that the United States played no significant role in the deal that broke the impasse. "They talked lots of good words about me, but words are nothing."

Specifically, he faults Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for not pushing Israel to withdraw from the disputed border territory known as Shebaa Farms — a process that might have undercut Hezbollah's rationale for maintaining its military machine.

Across town, in a chic Hamra cafe, I meet Mousawi. He speaks fluent English, having taken a doctorate from the University of Birmingham, and edits a pro-Hezbollah magazine.

Mousawi sees the two-year siege of the prime minister's office in much the same terms Siniora does — as a battle over Lebanon's identity. It ended in a compromise, and Mousawi seems to find that acceptable. His organization doesn't want to create a Hezbollah state, he insists. It just wants to block a pro-American one.

"Lebanon was meant to go again into the American age" after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, Mousawi says. "To Hezbollah, this meant the end. They don't want to be part of American hegemony, part of the West." The militia and its poor Shiite supporters felt they were fighting for their existence.

Hezbollah escalated its tactics on May 7, when its fighters seized West Beirut and other areas. The pro-American forces, known as the March 14 movement, were quickly overwhelmed. The heavy fighting ended in just a few hours, and a broad truce was negotiated over the next few days.

"No one would have imagined the Americans would have let it (Lebanon) go. But they are a superpower, and they said: 'Let it go,' " Mousawi observes. Now, Hezbollah is wondering how Barack Obama will change the game.

That's how it looks as the new year approaches in Lebanon: Still straddling the fault line, a multicolored quilt of a country that is now dressed collectively in a neutral gray — a country that has escaped its political torment, at least momentarily, in the absence of American assistance.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

In Lebanon, a season to forget about politics 12/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 28, 2008 3:30am]

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