Robert Fisk: Money can't close the sectarian divide in Lebanon

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If only money could buy peace - or was the £4bn handed out to Lebanon's Prime Minister in Paris yesterday supposed to help him defeat America's Hizbollah enemies in Beirut's increasingly savage street battles?

For, even as President Jacques Chirac of France was taking the applause for leading Lebanon's debt conference - the US itself pledged £405m, Lebanese troops were fighting to control the worst sectarian fighting so far in the capital. At least four students, one of them a Sunni Muslim government supporter, were killed, apparently by gunfire.

At one point yesterday, thousands of Hizbollah and Amal Shia Muslims were taken by truck from the southern suburbs to the campus of the Lebanese Arab University in Tarek el-Jdeideh. There, students - the Sunnis siding with the government, the Shias with the Hizbollah - were fighting in the lecture theatres. Many local Sunnis feared that the Shias were going to drive them from their homes, and Lebanese troops had to evacuate Sunni students in their own army trucks.

From both the Hizbollah leadership and from Saad Hariri, whose future party is in Fouad Siniora's elected government, came demands for an end to the latest fighting - needless to say, they blamed each other - in which another 36 young men were wounded. For several hours, the Lebanese army - yet again - failed to restore order, reduced to firing into the air in a vain attempt to force the crowds apart. Many of the Paris donors must have been wondering how Lebanon, which has a crushing - indeed, astonishing - £23bn (repeat: billion) debt, planned to spend their money when the country is apparently falling apart by the day.

The Saudis promised to hand over £500m - a Sunni Muslim kingdom trying to support a Sunni-led government in Beirut from which the Shia have resigned - to the gratitude of the US. Neither Washington nor its friends in the Middle East want another catastrophe - the fall of a US-supported administration in Beirut - to add to the bloodbath in Iraq and the growing anarchy of Afghanistan. But more than this, President Bush does not want his Iranian and Syrian enemies to win the battle for Lebanon via the Hizbollah.

The World Bank and the Arab Monetary Fund stumped up £600m for Mr Siniora's government - the Lebanese Prime Minister is himself an American-educated economist - but he must know how swiftly security is decaying. At one point, it seemed unlikely he would even be able to reach Paris to listen to M. Chirac's public expressions of joy. It is now almost impossible to remember that the original purpose of the Paris conference was to raise money to restore the infrastructure of Lebanon that America's own Israeli ally destroyed after the Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on 12 July last year.

In Beirut, it's now clear that the army commanders simply cannot ask their soldiers to shoot at their fellow citizens when they are seen using weapons. "We are here to protect all of our people and these are all the people of Lebanon," one junior officer said earlier this week as he was watching rioting between Sunnis and Shias in Beirut. The real problem, of course, is that the Lebanese army is largely drawn from the Shia, and the moment troops are ordered to attack men of their own sect - although many in the mobs wear hoods and carry wooden coshes - the army's unity cannot be guaranteed. But yesterday suggested that the days when Lebanon's troops can do little more than shoot into the air may be nearly over.

That the great and the good should have met in Paris to help "save" Lebanon - a country which has fewer than 4 million people - shows how desperate the situation in Beirut has now become. The stakes are high for a Western world which sees "extremism" behind any threat within Middle Eastern countries. The Saudis have already sought Syria's help - no doubt oiling their appeal in the usual way - while Iranian diplomats have been visiting Riyadh. So at least the largest Shia country is talking to the richest Sunni nation.

The mere fact that these talks can be viewed in such a way shows how dark are the shadows falling across the region. From the Pakistan border to the Mediterranean, almost every land is in crisis. Suddenly, all the Western talk of a Sunni-Shia war looks troublingly real. But, in an Arab world weaned on conspiracies - not all of them imaginary as the Iranians can fully attest after the CIA's overthrow of the Mossadeq regime in 1953 - many believe it has been the West's intention all along to divide their lands on religious lines.