Some four years before his murder, when he was still Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri angrily told me a story of his struggle with Hizbollah. We were walking in the garden of his Beirut palace at Qoreitem - he reasoned that, even though his phones were all tapped, the Syrians had probably not bugged the flower beds with listening devices - and his hands were shaking with rage.
"They wanted to bring some of their 'martyrs' who had died fighting the Israelis and bury them in front of the Beirut international airport," he muttered. "Can you imagine what that would have meant? We want to show the world our new Beirut and the graves of Hizbollah members would be the first thing that every visitor to Lebanon would see. And once buried there, they could never be removed. I managed to stop it."
"How?" I asked. But Hariri just flicked his right hand in the air dismissively. There must have been some compromise with Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the chairman of Hizbollah. He wouldn't say.
Only Nasrallah now knows what that compromise was, because the airport is now renamed the Martyr Rafiq Hariri International Airport - for last year, he was to become the "martyr" associated with the gleaming new terminal and runways - and Nasrallah's own followers are camping out in the centre of Beirut, less than 100 metres from Hariri's grave, demanding the destruction of the elected government supported by Hariri's own son Saad. Nasrallah's son Hadi was killed in a suicidal attack on the Israelis before their withdrawal in 2000, and the Hizbollah leader - true to the necrology associated with his faith - insisted that he receive only congratulations, rather than condolences, for his son's death in battle.
You need to be in Martyrs' Square to understand the absolute conviction with which the Shiites of Lebanon - the largest religious sect in Lebanon, although not a majority - are protesting at the government led by Rafiq Hariri's former economic adviser and friend, Fouad Siniora. Hundreds of Hizbollah security men in white baseball caps cordon off roads so that there can be no contact with the Lebanese troops guarding Siniora's ancient Ottoman serail, in which the Prime Minister and his allies are eating, sleeping and - possibly - working.
They check all bags, like plain-clothes policemen (which, of course, is exactly what they think they are). But their Shiite ministerial colleagues have resigned; so the Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze in the administration are now supposed to rule Lebanon without those cabinet members who may now represent up to 38 per cent of the population.
If Hizbollah's insistence that the government should resign is unconstitutional, so too, it seems, is Siniora's cabinet now that it no longer contains Shiites. Last Sunday's massive rally in Beirut ended in a peaceful return to their homes by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, policed once again by Hizbollah. Many Lebanese unwisely concluded that this symbolised failure - that Hizbollah's supporters had not been emotionally roused enough to provoke violence - but they were wrong. The discreet ending of the day's rally showed Hizbollah's discipline, not its weakness.
Nor should the government forget how fiercely and how ruthlessly Hizbollah fought the Israelis for 34 days last summer. It may not have been the "divine victory" of which Nasrallah boasted, but it was certainly a defeat for the Israelis, who, when a few thousand of them did manage to fight their way into Lebanon, were appalled to find that some of the Hizbollah fighters possessed Israeli uniforms and - much more seriously - Israel's own aerial photo-reconnaissance pictures of Hizbollah's Lebanese positions, complete with their Hebrew markings.
Hizbollah is a strict and moralistic organisation, but it uses drugs as currency and the assumption in southern Lebanon is that Hizbollah men traded narcotics with Israeli border guards in return for the photographs. Some of the Hizbollah read Hebrew and quickly worked out which of their bunkers had been identified and which remained unknown to the Israelis. So when the war began on 12 July, Hizbollah had already evacuated the caves known to the Israelis and waited for its enemy in the concrete emplacements that it knew the Israelis had not discovered.
Whether you loathe or admire Hizbollah, this was a startlingly professional intelligence operation by the Middle East's most powerful army. And while the resistance was fighting within only a few hundred metres of the Israeli border - at one point attacking an Israeli Merkava tank whose crew simply ran for their lives, abandoning their vehicle and even leaving behind its heavy machine gun - Siniora was on television, wiping away his tears and pleading for a ceasefire. Hence Nasrallah's profound contempt for Siniora's current government, a repugnance that is leeching dangerously into the various religious sects that provide Lebanon with a political system so complex that even some members of the Lebanese parliament cannot understand it.
An opinion poll by Beirut's Centre for Research and Information, for instance, suggests that 73.1 per cent of the population support the creation of a national unity government - the very demand made by Hizbollah. But the breakdown of this figure into religious groups shows that 94 per cent of Shiites and 50 per cent of Christians believe Siniora's cabinet is no longer legitimate, while 83 per cent of Sunnis and 90 per cent of the Druze believe exactly the opposite.
Ex-general Michel Aoun is the quaint, frightening and messianic Maronite leader whose supporters provide the high number of Christians opposed to Siniora. Aoun, who spoke at Sunday's rally in a baseball cap and shirt of bright orange - the colour of his very odd Free Patriotic Movement - provides the essential multi-confessional element that permits Nasrallah to claim that the anti-government protests are not just Shiite. Many Sunni Muslims, Druze and pro-government Christians believe that Aoun's real reason for this pact with the "Party of God", which the US State Department calls "terrorist", is that he wants to become the president of Lebanon. Just why anyone wants to rule Lebanon remains a mystery to me and to many Lebanese, but under the country's hopeless sectarian pact, the president must be a Christian Maronite - which is what Aoun happens to be.
Several cabinet ministers think that Aoun has gone off his rocker. For almost two years - until the Syrians bombed him out of the presidential palace in east Beirut with American permission in 1990 - he deluded himself into believing that he was the president of Lebanon, ruling the country with just three ministers, all of them Christians and one of them an army general, after his would-be Muslim colleagues walked out.
All the while, another Lebanese government ruled in the west of Beirut, an administration that eventually turned out to be the real administration when Aoun fled his burning palace in an armoured vehicle - dressed only in his pyjamas - to plead for asylum at the home of the French ambassador. During this weird period of Lebanese history, Aoun was in the habit of regarding himself as a latterday Napoleon, referring to his "rival" prime minister, the saintly Selim el-Hoss, as Pontius Pilate. When I once suggested to Aoun that this really revealed that he thought he was Jesus Christ, he promptly banned me from Christian east Beirut - until he ended up fighting not only the Syrians but his right-wing Christian allies led by the militia killer Samir Geagea, who today supports the Siniora government.
Readers who find all this a little operatic can imagine the effect it has on the Lebanese. But it all made sense of Aoun's character trait on Sunday when he virtually demanded (with Hizbollah's acquiescence, of course) the setting up of a rival government - presumably led by himself as President - with Shiite ministers and a few Christian party faithful alongside to represent the Prime Minister and others.
This wouldn't be just déjà vu; it would suggest some deep flaw in Aoun's personality that drives him to demand national unity while constantly trying to divide the nation. He found no problem in trying to run Lebanon without Muslim ministers in 1990 - but is outraged at Siniora for trying to remain Prime Minister without Shiite cabinet members today.
In fact, Hizbollah is far more intelligent than to send "Napoleon" back to the Baabda palace. Aoun will be swiftly dispatched - in Lebanon, of course, you have to be careful of using words like this - and the presidency offered to some honourable figure such as Riad Salami who, like all governors of the Lebanese Central Bank, is colourless and boring enough to fulfil his role with due obedience.
Nasrallah is right when he deplores the confessional system in Lebanon, in which the Christian Maronites - perhaps 29 per cent of the country - must hold the presidency, while the Sunnis are prime ministers and the Shiites are given the job of speaker of parliament. As long as it is sectarian, Lebanon cannot become a modern state. The problem is that without being sectarian, Lebanon will no longer exist.
Anyone who has lived in Beirut as long as I have - just over 30 years - occasionally experiences an odd phenomenon which I refer to as the "obvious question" syndrome - the appalled realisation that some extraordinary fact of life here has never been seriously studied or received sufficient reflection.
How is it, I ask myself these days, that this tiny country of perhaps only 5 million people - less than the population of London in a state smaller than the Home Counties, with neither oil nor military power - can obsess and capture and alternatively torture or love the United States, Israel, Syria, Iran, UN forces from France, Italy, Germany, Spain, India, Fiji, China, Turkey, Ireland, Ghana, Poland, you name it - and repeatedly dominate entire weeks of UN Security Council business?
This week, the UN's top investigator into Hariri's murder will make yet another report to the UN Secretary General that may - or may not if George W Bush follows James Baker's advice of befriending Syria for help in Iraq - once more finger the assassins of Damascus for the crime.
Partly, Lebanon exerts its influence over far more dangerous and powerful nations because of its strategic geographical location in the Middle East. North of Beirut, on the wall of the Nahr el-Kelb - the Dog river - can still be found the commemorative plaques, steles, memorial tablets and carvings of other armies that have passed through Lebanon, often to disaster.
There are the remains of Roman, Phoenician, Crusader, Mameluke, Ottoman, French and British armies - along with the Australians, we "liberated" Beirut from Vichy France in 1941 - and even a modern inscription recording the Israeli army's retreat from this country in 2000, placed there by Siniora's nemesis and Syria's best friend, the current President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon.
But this cannot explain Lebanon's fascination. Its towering mountains - which give this country its epic, wide-screen quality - have been the curse of invaders, and the Crusaders themselves felt so threatened by the suicide killers of the "hashashin" - they came via Baghdad - that they preferred to travel along the coast by sea rather than risk the Muslim archers in the hills. That, by the way, is why each of Lebanon's Crusader castles - little "green zones" in Tripoli, Batroun, Byblos, Beirut, Sidon, Tyre - were built exactly a day's sailing from each other.
No, I think it is the Lebanese themselves and their ability to condense into their tiny nation all the contradictions - religious, cultural, political, social - of the massive and fearful region upon which Lebanon sits, in both senses of the phrase, on the edge. Every Middle East crisis will be reflected here in miniature, in ghostly but still disturbing form, by its highly intelligent, cosmopolitan people.
The Iranian Revolution? Why, many of its senior Iranian prelates once taught - or were taught - in the Shiite religious schools east of Tyre. The Israeli-Palestinian war? Well, between 200,000 and 360,000 Palestinian refugees live in cruel poverty in the slum camps of Lebanon, survivors - and sons and daughters and grandsons and grand-daughters of the survivors - of the great Arab exodus from Palestine when Israel came into existence in 1948.
When Israel wanted to crush Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories, it tried to wipe out the Palestinian guerrilla presence in Lebanon with a bloody and vain invasion in 1982, which ended in the frightful slaughter of Palestinians by Israel's allies in the Sabra and Chatila camps. When the Iran-Iraq war began, its rival supporters fought each other in the streets of Beirut. When the war ended, Saddam Hussein shipped many of his now idle tanks and armour to none other than General Aoun - because Aoun was fighting Iraq's Syrian Baathist enemies.
Lebanon almost destroyed the Reagan administration when Oliver North tried to purchase America's hostages in Lebanon in what was to become the Irangate scandal. When Iraq descended into anarchy after America's 2003 invasion, Sunni Lebanese and Palestinians left from Tripoli and Sidon to become suicide bombers against US forces in Iraq, while the sectarian conflict in Mesopotamia ran like an earthquake tremor through the Sunnis and Shiites of Lebanon.
Sayed Hussein Fadlallah, the most learned Shiite scholar in Lebanon - the Americans green-lighted a car bomb assassination attempt funded by the Saudis to kill him but only managed to massacre 72 innocent civilians - has both scholar-pupils and cousins in Iraq, one of whom was murdered two years ago.
The usual anonymous "senior US intelligence officials" were trotted out in the American press last month to claim that Hizbollah was training members of the Mahdi army of Moqtada el-Sadr in Iraq. It was nonsense, but proof that the US administration still sees a fanatic behind every beard in Lebanon; just as the Iranians believe that Lebanon is always on the brink of a US takeover - which is exactly what Nasrallah claims Siniora is now preparing for Washington.
Yet was it not Fadlallah who once announced that Lebanon was "the lung through which Iran breathed"? Were the Iranians not controlling the hostage-takers of Lebanon in the 1980s? I once ended up in a series of bizarre - and fearfully dangerous - attempts to secure the release of my American journalist friend Terry Anderson from seven years of captivity, and ended up lunching with a man who had flown from Tehran to offer me Terry in return for four Iranian government officials kidnapped in Lebanon, one of whom they claimed was in prison in Saddam's Iraq, the other in Israel. If they had been murdered, the Iranians would like their bodies.
So I embarked on a fruitless search for corpses before the same Iranian asked if I would like to persuade the Americans to send them some missiles instead - at which point I immediately walked out of the quicksand, not realising that Oliver North was already in the mud, up to his neck.
But Nasrallah's other ally, Syria, is the Arab state whose shadow falls most darkly over Lebanon. Syria's leadership is largely Alawite - a branch of Shiism - and Syria is also Iran's only Arab ally. I wrote in The Independent years ago that if the Syrian army ever left Lebanon, the civil war would restart - and that if it didn't, Syria would make sure it did. Which is exactly what the Lebanese now suspect Syria is threatening to accomplish via Hizbollah. This is why Siniora's men talk about an attempted Iranian-Syrian coup d'état. This is why the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, is convinced that Syria's military retreat last year is now being reversed by a frightening neighbour which - through the murder of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon - is now trying to return. A "national unity" government would provide more power to Syria's Lebanese allies.
Both Lebanon and Syria gained their independence from the French in 1946 and they share the same history and language. But as Hazem Saghieh pointed out in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat this month, Syria chose "unity" while Lebanon chose "liberty". The Syrian flag, with its governessy and ferocious eagle, rarely flew contentedly next to Lebanon's gentle cedar tree banner. Syria has always looked outwards, towards Arab brotherhood and nationalism, first imagined by King Faisel the First, the spiritual father of Syria who vainly sought an Arab version of the Turkish Ottoman empire.
Lebanon looked inwards, at its internal sectarian divisions, its divided cities. If Syria called itself the "beating heart of Arabism", Lebanon was content to be "the only democracy in the Middle East" - though both claims were happier on paper than they were on the ground. Syrian populism challenged Lebanese individualism. Saghieh claims that Syria was formed on the national model of Germany or Italy, while Lebanon was inspired by the political pacts that created Switzerland and Belgium. Syria has its own confessional divisions - I used to watch the pained expressions of its ministers whenever I mentioned the unmentionable: the Alawite faith of the President, the Kurds, the Sunni majority. But these divisions are to be ignored. Lebanon is Eve, the seducer. Syria is Adam. And Eve was once part of Adam's body.
But into the Middle East we have again sent our military forces, in unprecedented numbers, and given our Israeli allies weapons in unprecedented numbers. And the Muslims - you can see their faithful reflection in the lakes and rivers of Lebanon - appear to be winning the war. We have been engulfed in Iraq and are being crushed in southern Afghanistan. Israel was defeated by Hizbollah and cannot suppress the Palestinian intifada. Civil wars or near civil wars have broken out in the lands of our occupation.
And now the same fate taps Lebanon on the shoulder. Oh yes, America will stand firmly at the side of Siniora's democratically elected government against Iran's axis of evil and the devil-Baathists of Syria. But Siniora, "our man" in Lebanon, is in deep trouble.
What we are watching across the whole region is the steady but increasing collapse of American imperial power. It will not be a joyous event. It may prove to be terrifying. It will definitely be bloody. And Lebanon may now be the mirror that proves it all true.Reuse content