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Lebanon faces prospect of civil war

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It was a dispute in a university cafeteria that erupted into the worst sectarian violence in Lebanon in 15 years. How it started and who is to blame depends on which side tells the story.

But even as young Shiite and Sunni men on both sides armed themselves for a bloody face-off last Thursday, their parents begged them to stop – horrific images of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war rekindling in their minds.

The political standoff between the government and opposition, simmering for two months, has taken an increasingly violent and sectarian turn in the past week, exposing long-dormant divisions between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites, and rival Christian factions.

At stake in the spiraling conflict is who will define the identity of Lebanon, a colonial-era construct that includes 18 confessions, and in recent decades has served as the proxy battlefield for broader regional struggles by Israel, Syria, Palestinians, and today, the US and Iran.

"My mother was crying ... and telephoned me to come back," says business student Alaa, a Sunni who dismissed his mother's pleas on Thursday, as black smoke from burning cars belched above the largely Sunni Tareq al-Jdideh neighborhood.

"They know about the civil war and they fear it again," says Alaa, speaking of his parents. "[But] if we do not do this and defend our homes, [Shiites] could come and invade and stay."

That battle pitted Sunni supporters of the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who dominate the area around the Beirut Arab University, against Shiite Hizbullah and Amal loyalists who want to topple the government and who called in armed and helmeted reinforcements to back up their students.

The specter of renewed conflict could mar the ambitions of both Lebanese camps and jeopardize a transformation that has rebuilt Beirut from the ashes of civil war. Lebanon is still reeling from the 34-day war this summer, between Hizbullah and Israel, that devastated the nation's infrastructure. Donors in the Western camp met in Paris Thursday to pledge $7.6 billion to help.

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