Hezbollah Leads a Fiery Strike
Lebanon Violence Is Worst Since Start of Protest; At Least 3 Dead
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; Page A06
BEIRUT, Jan. 23 -- The Hezbollah-led opposition cut roads in Beirut and across Lebanon with burning tires, uprooted trees, incinerated cars and barricades to enforce a strike Tuesday aimed at toppling the government, paralyzing the country and embarrassing Lebanese officials ahead of an international aid conference. Clashes erupted along the country's crisis fault lines, leaving at least three people dead and scores injured in the worst violence since the protests began in December.
Fires at dozens of barricades sent black smoke billowing against a pale blue sky, framing the capital in scenes redolent of war. Along the airport highway, the opposition sent trucks and bulldozers to pour more rubble on roadblocks set up by dawn, forcing some passengers to drag their luggage on foot to the airport, where airlines canceled flights.
An overextended army, hewing to a policy of neutrality, rarely intervened to break the blockades, effectively ensuring the success of the most dramatic escalation yet in the two-month campaign led by Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization, to force the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Opposition leaders hailed the success of a one-day strike that, by choice or circumstance, closed shops, shut schools, emptied streets of traffic and blocked key roads to the airport and seaport on the Mediterranean. Government supporters spoke darkly of a coup d'etat, warning that the violence would only escalate, and some suggested that elements within the military might be complicit.
"If it goes on like this, nobody will be able to do anything. The government will have to step down," said Mohammed Harb, a 20-year-old Hezbollah supporter, standing at a fiery barricade that blocked six armored personnel carriers from passing. "And what's beautiful? It's not just Beirut. We've shut down all of Lebanon."
Siniora, who was scheduled to travel to Paris for the international conference, remained in Beirut and delivered an address on national television Tuesday evening. He promised to stand firm against what he called "intimidation" and said the military should permit "no flexibility or compromise" in keeping the peace.
More than a fight between a government and its opposition, the struggle here pits two camps that roughly divide the country in half, each sensing the other's victory as an existential threat. The divisions are as diverse as Lebanon itself, with its 18 religious sects: whether the government's patrons in the United States and France will have a greater say here, or Hezbollah's allies in Iran and Syria; what posture the country will take toward Israel; which sect -- Sunni or Shiite Muslim -- will be decisive in politics.
There is a certain cynicism among many Lebanese that the deadlock will be broken only with more bloodshed, forcing a compromise short of civil war. Each camp has mobilized its supporters -- for the government, Sunni, Druze and some Christians; for Hezbollah and Amal, its Shiite supporters, along with allied Christians led by Michel Aoun, a former general and prime minister. Each side has escalated, with a sense it can mount pressure on the other while still controlling passions in the streets.
But Tuesday's clashes, from Sunni-Shiite and Christian fault lines in Beirut to outlying towns that have so far skirted the crisis, may prove most memorable for scenes of strife defying those assumptions: the army and security forces firing into the air and lobbing tear gas; at other times helpless in separating the feuding sides, which threw rocks, sticks and insults across barricades in fights that lasted hours. At least three people were killed in towns north of Beirut, and more than 100 were injured before the opposition declared an end to the strike and began removing barricades late at night.
At times in the confrontations, a dehumanizing language entered the discourse.
"This is not democracy," said Roger Hayek, a government supporter and member of the Phalange Party, a Christian group. He pointed across lines of soldiers separating the sides, standing in a smoky haze. "This is an image of Iraq."
A friend jumped in: "They're animals."