Cabinet Backs Off in Scrap With Hezbollah
Shiite Group Sees Victory as Government Rescinds Moves That Sparked Violence

By Anthony Shadid and Alia Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 15, 2008

BEIRUT, May 14 -- The Lebanese government rescinded two decisions Wednesday that had targeted Hezbollah and ignited the worst internal fighting since the end of the 15-year civil war, underlining the group's sense of victory in a battle that has recalibrated Lebanese politics.

Jubilatory gunfire reverberated across a night sky as the Shiite Muslim group's followers celebrated what they saw as a defeat for the U.S.-backed government in its latest confrontation with Hezbollah and its allies. That 18-month political struggle has paralyzed the country, effectively closing parliament, depriving the cabinet of its Shiite representation and leaving Lebanon without a president since November.

In a statement read by a grim-faced Ghazi Aridi, the information minister, the cabinet cast the decision as a move "in view of the higher national interest," rescuing Lebanon from a civil war that seemed dangerously close just days ago. At a televised news conference, Aridi said the step was taken in line with a request by the military and to facilitate a high-profile Arab mediation effort that began Wednesday. But the language did little to conceal what amounted to a humiliating step for a government that has portrayed any victory for Hezbollah as a triumph for its allies, Iran and Syria.

"In order to facilitate the negotiations of the Arab League delegation and to preserve national unity and the security of citizens, the government has decided to accept the decisions of the army," Aridi said after a five-hour cabinet meeting.

Last week, the cabinet announced a probe into a telecommunications network set up by Hezbollah and reassigned the head of security at the Beirut airport, who is considered close to the movement. Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, said the two decisions constituted a declaration of war against the group, and the following day, its militiamen and allied fighters briefly occupied predominantly Muslim West Beirut, routing government-allied militiamen. Its men have since blocked key roads in the city, closing the airport and port.

Fighting in Beirut and sectarian clashes that ensued elsewhere in the country left dozens dead in battles reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war.

With two days of relative peace, Lebanon remains stuck in a moment of anxious anticipation. Traffic has returned to Beirut's streets and much of the detritus of fighting has been swept away, a testament to a city made resilient by civil war and endless crises.

But Hezbollah had demanded that the cabinet also agree to a national dialogue -- a point not mentioned in Aridi's statement -- before allowing the airport and port to reopen.

"I think a new stage is about to start," said an official with the Hezbollah-led opposition, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We can put what's happened behind us."

Aridi said he expected the airport road to be reopened soon, but other ministers said no guarantees had been given before the cabinet decisions.

The government's loss of standing in the confrontation has served as another blow to U.S. ambitions in the region. President Bush, in Jerusalem to celebrate the anniversary of Israel's founding in 1948, accused Iran of using Hezbollah to destabilize Lebanon. The State Department, meanwhile, said it would speed assistance to the Lebanese military. While the army was long considered neutral in the crisis, many here saw it as facilitating Hezbollah's entry into Beirut and elsewhere in the latest clashes.

The crisis has ramifications for Hezbollah, too. While its followers see their rout of government supporters as a victory, it faces new questions over its weapons, which it had long pledged would be deployed only in confrontation with Israel.

Some analysts said they hoped the crisis might revive efforts for a comprehensive solution involving a new president, a law for parliamentary elections and a power-sharing deal. But many worried that a conflict entrenched in prestige as much as power may remain intractable, and government supporters have sought to put Hezbollah's weapons on any agenda.

"This civil war is here," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for al-Nahar newspaper. "It was begun by what Hezbollah has done in Beirut. It can still be stopped if there is a real consensus, but without a real consensus, it will begin again."

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