Lebanese port returns to freewheeling ways, rolls back Islamic rule


TYRE, Lebanon -- At the beach, men and women sunbathe together again without fear of criticism. At the port, freighters unload ever-larger cargoes of luxury cars stolen in Europe. In restaurants, alcohol is served for the first time in seven years.

"Welcome," shouted a man playing paddle ball near the cabanas. "Welcome to the peace."

It's peace southern Lebanon-style: Islamic fundamentalism is on the decline, and alcohol and wheeling and dealing are roaring back. What is altogether new is a sense of political realism, a change of attitude that extends to Lebanon's relations with its neighbors and the prospect of freedom for Western hostages, whose ordeal has come to characterize the frazzled country.

For the first time since the late 1970s, the Lebanese appear to be striving for calm. They have endured a 16-year civil war, an all-out war launched by Israel, meddling by Iran and meddling by Syria, culminating last spring in Syria's gaining indirect control over Lebanon's government.

Tyre itself is changing back from a nearly lawless city-state into part of a definable country. Units of the Lebanese army, after reasserting control in Beirut, have slowly moved south to take the place of warring militias.

The army's main weapon is its mere presence. On the city outskirts, the army has taken over checkpoints established in the mid-1980s by Amal, a Shiite Muslim militia backed by Syria. Amal is said to have disarmed and has tentatively ended its war with Hezbollah (Party of God), a rival Shiite militia backed by Iran.

Residents talk about the simplest pleasures as godsends. A year ago, the private armies made a trip by car to Beirut harrowing enough to be nearly unthinkable. Now people drive to the capital in 90 minutes. "There are people who were not on the coastal road for 10 years, and they've started going every day," said a United Nations official based in the region. "It's a miracle."

A small taste of quiet has given people an appetite for more of the same. Muslim prayer leaders explain, for example, that keeping Western hostages harms the interests of Shiites, and they call for the captives to be released.

Sheik Ali Amin, a supporter of Amal, is one of the religious authorities preaching moderation.

"We believe that the Lebanese Shia are paying a very big price for being blamed for the kidnappings," Sheik Amin said at his office at the local Shiite Supreme Council. "We are very different from other Shia -- we are not Iranian."

Sheik Amin routinely makes pronouncements that would have been treated as heresies a year ago. The 10 remaining Western hostages should be released "without any conditions," he said. Lebanon should use "politics, not force," to persuade Israel to withdraw from the southernmost strip of Lebanon.

As for Iran, "it doesn't have magic for the people."

Sheik Amin's message is colored by the rivalry between Amal and Hezbollah. Their fighting began in 1988, when Hezbollah kidnapped a U.S. Army colonel near an Amal checkpoint south of Tyre. Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, who was assigned to a U.N. observer force, died in captivity, and his disappearance led to the battle between the two Shiite militias.

Distrust of Iran remains a major source of tension. As Hezbollah's sponsor, Iran is held partly responsible for the kidnappings of Westerners, for their continued detention and for Lebanon's having to pay the price through political isolation.

Hezbollah militiamen remain in the area despite the arrival of the Lebanese army. Within the last few months, they have abandoned day-to-day control of the cities in favor of the countryside. "They are coming back in a more effective way," the U.N. official said. "They are going underground. They have small cells, they are well-armed and well-motivated."

Their target is Israel and a mercenary force it supports, the Christian-dominated South Lebanon Army. Israeli soldiers and the SLA hold sway in a strip of Lebanese territory designated by Israel as a "security zone." It is a buffer of territory intended to contain would-be infiltrators before they reach Israel.

By some measures, Hezbollah has improved its tactics. Five SLA militiamen have been killed by Hezbollah mines since the beginning of July; none were in the first six months of the year.

But Hezbollah may have lost as much as it gained. The SLA has retaliated by sweeping through the villages closest to where mines are found, making it clear to villagers that Hezbollah's presence brings trouble.

On at least one occasion, the SLA forced residents to walk in front of an SLA platoon as human mine detectors.

"In a way, the SLA practice has worked," the U.N. official said. "It tends to turn people against Hezbollah."

As in the past, the Lebanese army finds itself caught in the middle. Ten days ago, army units clashed briefly with both the SLA and Hezbollah after the SLA shelled villages closest to another mine explosion.

Strict Islamic standards imposed on the people of Tyre on demand from Hezbollah alienated a population that has been freewheeling since the beginning of recorded time. There are sermons decrying immodest dress and the drinking of alcohol, messages that most of the city's 50,000 residents now appear determined to ignore.

"You see a lot of parties, a lot of alcohol, a lot of dancing," Sheik Amin said matter-of-factly. "You can't change Lebanon. As bishops, as imams, as sheiks, we have our job to convince people how to live. If we fail, it's our fault."

The local deity is commerce, just as in prewar times. Indeed, the city was born as a center of commerce for those earliest traders, the ancient Phoenicians. Modern Lebanon derived its wealth as a country where businessmen of the Arab and Western worlds could bank, gamble and vacation, and where the rules for every activity were noticeably lax. And so southern Lebanon may be again.

A longtime resident noted approvingly that the cars being brought ashore at the port were no longer inexpensive models manufactured in Japan. Now they are BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes -- 600 to 700 a week. Just as in the old days.

About half the cars are stolen from the streets of Western Europe, while the others are legitimately new and slightly more expensive.

"In Lebanon," the man explained, "if you want a legitimate car, something you can register abroad, you have to pay a bit more."

He suggested it was a sign of normalcy and civic health. "Tyre," he said approvingly, "has the most incredible traffic jams in the world."

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