SIDON, Lebanon — Only a month ago, the residents of this port city were so overjoyed at their deliverance from two years of Israeli occupation that they danced in the streets, placed flowers in Lebanese soldiers' gun barrels and vowed that Sidon would never slip into the vicious spiral of sectarian warfare.
On Wednesday, the only dancing in Sidon was the macabre jitterbug of men and women lurching between buildings as sniper bullets snapped overhead like bullwhips.
And, after three days of fighting--among the Christian militia, known as the Lebanese Forces; at least three Muslim groups, and the Lebanese regular army--hopes of preserving Sidon's fragile peace have all but crumbled.
In the last few days, Sidon has become an echo of Beirut--a city divided into heavily armed Muslim and Christian quarters with a largely powerless national army deployed between them.
The only difference in Sidon is that the urban area is almost entirely Sunni and Shia Muslim--there are about 4,000 Christians--and the villages in the hills above the city are heavily Christian.
"We are trying not to resemble Beirut," said Ousama Saad, the leader of the Nasserite party in Sidon--primarily a Sunni group--whose office was surrounded Wednesday by militiamen in full battle dress.
"We don't want a war, but when the Lebanese army becomes unable to stop the attacks against us, we will be ready to fight."
Like a Nightmare
The collapse of Sidon's cherished religious tolerance is like a nightmare come to life. Before they pulled out of the city Feb. 16, the Israelis had been stridently warning of the possibility of a sectarian bloodbath.
In an effort to avert a repetition of the bloody Christian-Druze confrontation that erupted in the Shouf Mountains after Israel's withdrawal there in 1983, Sidon's elders had agreed to keep sectarian militias off the streets and place security in the hands of the Lebanese army.
The agreement was forgotten Wednesday, as gunmen in fatigues and Adidas tennis shoes dodged among buildings firing rocket-propelled grenades at an unseen enemy and explosions boomed ominously in the distance.
One soldier was reported wounded when mortar shells fell on the northern entrance to the city, and a woman pedestrian was shot by snipers on the city's main thoroughfare. Christian radios said the eastern suburbs were pounded by heavy artillery and mortars.
11 Reported Killed
Eleven people have been reported killed since the fighting began.
The rapid polarization of Sidon and its surroundings began last week when the Lebanese Forces set up roadblocks around Sidon and began kidnaping civilians, according to Western residents of the city.
On Monday, the Lebanese Forces reportedly issued an ultimatum to Muslim residents in the villages along the steep road east of Sidon, warning that they had an hour to leave.
The road into the hills was blocked by the familiar sight of up-ended automobile tires and oil drums formed into checkpoints. A no man's land was quickly established.
Muslim leaders maintain that most of the fighting has been between the Lebanese Forces and the Lebanese army, whose units in the area are primarily Sunni Muslim. But many eyewitnesses said that the brunt of the fighting against the Lebanese Forces appeared to be coming from the Shia militia known as Amal.
"The Lebanese Forces seem to want to make Sidon into an eastern zone and a western zone like in Beirut with a green line in between," lamented Nazih Bizri, a member of Parliament from Sidon.
Muslim residents of nearby villages have been hurriedly leaving their homes, driving down the rutted asphalt road and heading to Sidon.
Bizri and other Muslim leaders estimated Wednesday that more than half of the 40,000 Muslims in the string of villages in the hills overlooking the city have been forced to flee.
There is little evidence--such as cars filled with belongings or crowds of displaced people--to support such a large estimate.
Nonetheless, there is little doubt that people are getting out of the area in increasingly large numbers, with most of the Muslims simply moving in with relatives in Sidon.
"It was terrifying up there, and I had to get my wife out," said Saad Ghawas, who was unloading a clothes rack from his car in Sidon on Wednesday afternoon.
Ghawas, a resident of Abra, said that about 90% of the 10,000 people there have fled so far.
"Everyone is afraid," he added.
Similarly, Christians living on the outskirts of Sidon fear reprisals from the Muslim community after the Lebanese Forces' attacks and have begun a quiet retreat to Miye ou Miye and Jezzine.
"My downstairs neighbor had a nervous breakdown over this fighting," said one Christian woman. "She thinks this is the end of Christian civilization in southern Lebanon."
But Muslim leaders such as Saad, whose brother was severely injured in a car bombing not long ago, have said that they are adamant about keeping the Christians safely among them.
"We are against the exodus of Christians from Sidon," said Saad, a medical doctor.