The Big Question: Is the current crisis in the Middle East directly connected to Iraq?

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The Independent Online

Are the events in Lebanon linked to the Iraq conflict?

Undoubtedly. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, lost her cool during an interview yesterday morning on BBC Radio 4'sToday programme and denied any connection between the latest Middle East flare-up and the Iraqi quagmire. However, Tony Blair was overheard on Monday telling President Bush, in what he thought was a private conversation, that it is "all part of the same thing". In fact, the Prime Minister has always linked Iraq to the broader Middle East conflict. He made it clear before the Iraq invasion in 2003 that a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict holds the key to undermining support for the global Muslim jihad. Yesterday, he told the Commons: "Hizbollah is supported by Iran and Syria, by the former in weapons, weapons incidentally very similar if not identical to those used against British troops in Basra; by the latter in many different ways; and by both, financially."

So what's the connection?

There is a very direct connection between Lebanon and Iraq, highlighted by the fact that more than two dozen Palestinians from Lebanese refugee camps have joined the deadly roll-call of suicide bombers targeting the British and American occupying forces. The Palestinians have long had a connection with Iraq, as Saddam Hussein used to pay $25,000 to each family of Palestinian "martyrs" who blew themselves up inside Israel. But more broadly, states such as Iran and Syria have perceived Britain and America to be weak because of their military difficulties in Iraq, and have seized the opportunity to move on their own strategic goals. Although Shia Iran and secular Baathist-ruled Syria are not ideal bedfellows, their interests have come together in their support for Hizbollah and Hamas which are bent on the destruction of Israel. (Incidentally, the conflict has provided Iran with a welcome respite from the West's drive to curb its nuclear programme.)

What does Israel want?

Israel needs peace with its neighbours above all else. It has managed to secure peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but peace with Syria and Lebanon has proved elusive. In the present case, the Israelis say they want Hizbollah to be disarmed, in line with UN Resolution 1559 adopted in September 2004. This led to the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon last year, but the disarming of Hizbollah, demanded by the same resolution, has never taken place. Israel says that its military offensive - launched on Wednesday last week after the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah - aims to push the Lebanese government into disarming the group and taking control of southern Lebanon, where the army's authority remains pretty limited. Yet the Israelis were unable to disarm Hizbollah during the presence of their own troops and their proxy militia in south Lebanon for almost 20 years, which ended in ignominious withdrawal. So there's not much of a chance that the Lebanese army will be able to extend its writ into the south.

Will Lebanon split as a result of this crisis?

It will probably remain a unitary state, as it has had plenty of opportunities to split along sectarian lines in its history, and survived a 15-year civil war which ended when Syrian troops came to the rescue as peacekeepers.But the map of Lebanon and its patchwork quilt of religious communities shows what is at stake. The dilemma at the heart of Lebanese society is that it is defined by sectarianism. Yet to be a modern state, it has to divest itself of sectarianism. Under the 1989 Ta'if accord for national reconciliation, power was shared out among the various religious groups, with the Muslim majority given a greater say in the political process which until then had been dominated by the Maronite Christians. The Lebanese prime minister is now always a Sunni Muslim, while the president is a Maronite Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Lebanon's population is roughly broken down among Muslims and Christians - 60 per cent of the 3.8 million population are Shia and Sunni Muslim, and Druze, while 39 per cent are Maronite Christian and Greek Orthodox.

Is Lebanon a viable state?

Its government has certainly looked extremely fragile since the departure of Syrian forces after a 29-year occupation. The country was seriously destabilised after the assassination of the former (anti-Syrian) prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February last year, and in recent months there have been fears of a return to war following a series of bombings. It will take years for the country to recover from the Israeli military strikes on its international airport, power stations, roads and the rest of the civilian infrastructure which have dealt a body blow to its national economy and tourism. One issue is whether Israel wants to keep Lebanon weak in order to prevent it from competing economically with its powerful southern neighbour. The beaches and mountain retreats of Lebanon - which before the war gave the country the reputation for being a tourist mecca - have again been a major draw since its recovery from the war. But it remains to be seen whether Lebanon can ever be a "normal" functioning democracy.

Could there be a wider regional war?

This is the big fear because of the nature of this proxy war, in which Syria and Iran stand behind Hizbollah, and the Americans behind Israel. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein was part of a larger war that now pits Britain and America against militant Shia, militant Sunni and Baathist Arab nationalists in Iraq. All three factions are present in Iraq - now ruled by its dominant Shia factions, close to Iran, as an unintended consequence of the Iraq war - and they are also represented in Lebanon, Iran and Syria. Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Monday that Hizbollah would not disarm. The risk of possible escalation is obvious. Iran's Hizbollah, which claims links to the Lebanese militia of the same name, said yesterday that it stood ready to attack Israeli and US interests worldwide.

Will Lebanon survive the present onslaught?

Yes...

* Lebanon has survived worse - remember the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the 15-year civil war

* Lebanon has plenty of friends among outside powers who won't let it fracture

* The collapse of a state along sectarian lines has echoes of Iraq and is too awful to contemplate

No...

* The central government is powerless and Hizbollah too powerful for the state to survive

* Lebanon is too vulnerable to outside powers to keep going as a unitary state

* The Israeli military offensive could bring about the collapse of the state

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