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Our hotel now had to increase its security and we had to consider moving our delegation to predominantly Christian East Beirut, a part of the city in which the pro-Syrian, Hizbollah-linked fighters of the SSNP could not operate without provoking civil war. As with so much of Lebanese politics, there was a twisted irony to this in that the SSNP was founded by a member of Lebanon's small (and traditionally pan-Arabist) Greek Orthodox Christian minority, who also happened to admire Hitler and to dream of a Greater Syria covering the entire fertile crescent from Iraq to Palestine. The reason why the SSNP can operate in mostly Sunni West Beirut is that Lebanon's Sunnis are the least martial of the country's sects. As a result, when Hizbollah, its less fundamentalist Shia ally Amal and the SSNP invaded West Beirut last May, the gunmen were quickly able to overwhelm the armed security guards defending the headquarters of the main Sunni political party.

Though we chose to stay at our original hotel, Hamra Street became out of bounds for the three of us. Later in the week, the local newspapers reported the attack. The SSNP duly denied that any such incident had taken place, adding that if it had done, surely the foreigners in question would have alerted the police, as any SSNP member would have done.

The incident put a slight dampener on a day that began with the sight of a million Lebanese people of all faiths cheerfully demonstrating in favour of independence from Syria and in memory of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister assassinated in February 2005. There had been speakers from all the parties of the 14 March Alliance, named after the date of the "Cedar Revolution" that began a month after Hariri's death and which culminated in the withdrawal of Syria's 40,000 troops from Lebanon a month later. After three hours of speeches from Sunni, Christian, Druze, communist and anti-Hizbollah Shia leaders within the M14 movement, interspersed with pop songs and a rendition of Schubert's Ave Maria, there was a moment of silence at 12:55, the time of Hariri's assassination. Then church bells rang while the muezzin called Muslims to prayer from the huge mosque that Hariri had built. It felt heartwarming given Lebanon's peculiar system of "confessional democracy" and recent history of sectarian warfare.

The pro-Syrian March 8 group includes Hizbollah, the older, less fundamentalist Amal, the SSNP, plus Christians loyal to Michel Aoun, the general who was once Syria's fiercest opponent in Lebanon but is now Damascus's friend, apparently in hope of becoming Prime Minister. Such shifts seem par for the course. The Druze clans led by Walid Jumblatt used to be Syria's closest allies-even after the assassination of his father, Kamal - but are now allied to the anti-Syrian Maronite Christians against whom they fought the brutal "Mountain War" of 1983. The southern Shia, the backbone of Hizbollah, fought against the PLO in the late 1970s and welcomed Israeli troops in 1982.

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