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By Laila Bassam
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad believes neighbouring Lebanon cannot shield itself from the civil war in his country and that both states should fight his opponents, three members of a Lebanese delegation who visited Assad said on Monday.
Lebanon, which suffered its own civil war from 1975 to 1990 and endured a military presence by its historically dominant neighbour for 29 years until 2005, has maintained a policy of "dissociation" from Syria's two-year-old conflict.
But many Lebanese officials feel their country is increasingly at risk of being dragged into Syria's bloodshed, which the United Nations says has killed 70,000 people.
One of the 54 mostly pro-Assad Lebanese delegates who went to Damascus on Sunday quoted Assad as saying that historical and geographic realities meant Lebanon - a tiny country of only 4 million on the Mediterranean - could not stand aside.
"No one can distance himself while being consumed by flames ... This fire will burn every part of the body," Vera Yammine, a member of El Marada Movement Political Bureau, a historically pro-Assad Christian group, quoted Assad as telling the delegation during their visit.
Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, have a four-decade-old legacy of intervention in Lebanon and Lebanese security forces retain strong links with Syria's intelligence organisation.
During the current crisis, the Syrian army has regularly fired mortars into and occasionally entered Lebanese territory in pursuit of Syrian rebels hiding in border regions. Assad's opponents in Lebanon blame Syrian intelligence for the killing of top anti-Assad security official Wissam al-Hassan in October.
Syrian warplanes bombed Lebanese territory in mid-March and April in what Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called an "unacceptable violation" of Lebanese sovereignty.
Assad's mainly Shi'ite Muslim supporters in Lebanon also feel at risk from the majority Sunni Muslim revolt in Syria. On Saturday, rockets hit the Lebanese town of Hermel, a stronghold of the Shi'ite militant Hezbollah group, which rebels say is helping Assad crush the uprising against him.
The conflict began with peaceful street protests but turned into civil war after Assad set military forces on demonstrators.
THE "COMMON CAUSE"
Yammine quoted Assad as saying that no one believed the Syria war was going to be a short-lived crisis and that he was "preparing for the long-term".
Abdul Rahim Mourad, a pro-Assad former Lebanese defence minister, said Assad appeared confident and at ease, talking in detail about the military situation in the country and saying that he would fight "whatever the price."
"(Assad said) how can Lebanon remove its own 10,452 square kilometres (6,494 miles) and move itself to Africa? ... (He said) this policy of self-distancing is a mistake and there must be a strong relationship," he said.
Last week, Assad warned Jordan it would be playing with fire by supporting the rebels, saying the Western-backed kingdom was just as vulnerable as his country to al Qaeda militants - a further sign of a president increasingly rattled by rebel gains.
Assem Qanso, a Lebanese government minister and member of Assad's own pan-Arab nationalist Baath Party, said that Assad called for Lebanon to stop avoiding what he said was the "common cause" against radical Islam and to "assume its responsibility for the security of the border".
Radical Islamists have taken an increasingly high profile in Syrian rebel ranks and proven among the strongest combatants.
(Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Mark Heinrich)