Opposition Seizes Most Of Beirut

Witnesses and security officials say Shiite supporters of Hezbollah and Sunni backers of Lebanon's U.S.-allied government are clashing with automatic rifles and grenades. (May 8) Video by AP
By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 10, 2008

BEIRUT, May 9 -- Supporters of Lebanon's opposition Hezbollah movement seized control of most of Beirut Friday, roaming shuttered streets with guns and grenade launchers and provoking broad domestic condemnation for deploying their weapons against fellow Lebanese.

Clashes between opposition supporters and fighters allied with the government left at least four people dead across the country, bringing to at least 14 the number killed this week. Much of the violence has pitted the Shiite-led opposition against Sunni supporters of the government, renewing fears that Lebanon's political crisis could devolve into widespread sectarian warfare.

The crisis posed a fresh challenge to the Bush administration, which has backed the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in part to counter Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran. About $400 million in U.S. funding is dedicated to improving Lebanon's security forces, but Hezbollah and its allies have rapidly dominated the capital as the army has largely stood aside.

Pro-government politicians criticized the army for not doing more to counter opposition forces. Hezbollah and the allied Amal movement remained in control of the capital's streets and maintained a presence in many West Beirut neighborhoods whose residents are mainly government supporters.

The violence abated somewhat after the announcement that two pro-government parties would place their offices and weapons under military control.

"We will not be dragged into a civil war, but we will hang on, I will hang on here in Beirut, with the people of this city," said longtime Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose residence was besieged by opposition fighters who later ceded the area to the army.

"What's happened today is a coup d'etat that has toppled the legitimacy of Hezbollah's weapons," said Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, a former Christian militia turned political party, following a meeting of the pro-government March 14 coalition.

Reading a statement issued by the group, Geagea said that Hezbollah sought to return Syria to Lebanon and help Iran "reach the Mediterranean."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Friday that the events in Lebanon were an internal matter.

Lebanon has many armed groups, but Hezbollah is the only officially sanctioned armed force besides the military. The movement repeatedly has vowed to use its arms only against Israel, but the events of this week seemed likely to undermine that assurance.

The crisis erupted Wednesday when a demonstration called by labor unions turned violent and led to the closure of main roads, including the highway to Beirut's international airport, by opposition supporters. They were incensed by government decisions to dismantle a Hezbollah telecommunications network that the movement considers part of its military infrastructure and by the reassignment of a Shiite security official at the airport.

Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, declared Thursday that Lebanon had entered a "new stage" and said that protests will continue until the government withdraws its decisions.

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