Lebanese violence spreads to mountains

May 11, 2008 6:08:19 PM PDT
Lebanon hung between fears of all-out war and hopes of political compromise Sunday as government supporters and opponents battled with rockets and machine guns in the mountains overlooking the capital. The fighting saw the collapse of pro-government forces in the Aley region, a stronghold of anti-Syrian Druse leader Walid Jumblatt.

Beirut was quiet a day after Hezbollah gunmen left the streets, heeding an army call for the Shiite fighters to clear out. The city was the focus of four days of Sunni-Shiite clashes that culminated with Hezbollah seizing large swaths of Muslim West Beirut - demonstrating its military might in a showdown with the government.

Thirty-eight people have been killed since Wednesday, when a power struggle between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the U.S.-backed government began erupting into the worst sectarian violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Across the country, there were fears of another slide into civil war.

"I don't believe this is the end," said Hala, a 32-year-old employee of an insurance company who lives in a posh area of the Muslim sector that saw fighting three days ago. She declined to give her name for fear of retaliation.

"They haven't solved the problem yet," she added. "There will be another round."

But some analysts saw Hezbollah's demonstration of its power as paving the way for a solution to end the political crisis. Analysts said the opposition now appears to have the upper hand, which could force the government to compromise.

"The opposition is in control now. These military victories have to be translated politically," said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a political science professor who is an expert on Hezbollah.

"You can't have a civil war when there is one group that is militarily superior to the others," she said, referring to Hezbollah.

The violence was sparked when the government confronted Hezbollah with decisions to sack the chief of airport security for alleged ties to the militant group and to declare Hezbollah's private telephone network illegal. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the decisions amounted to a declaration of war.

Ghorayeb said nobody expected Hezbollah to go as far as it did. She expects the group's achievements on the ground to force the government into a compromise.

"Hezbollah crossed the threshold and gained its own momentum," she said. "Given that Beirut fell so quickly, the opposition saw that this was a golden opportunity to force the government into a compromise that would be tilted in its favor."

Overnight, there were fierce clashes in the north, particularly in the city of Tripoli. One woman was killed.

Heavy fighting between government supporters and opponents broke out Sunday in the central mountain town of Aytat and surrounding areas, about 9 miles from Beirut. The sounds of heavy machine-gun fire and explosions rolled across the capital.

Pro-government supporters of Jumblatt and Shiite gunmen and their allies exchanged rockets and machine-gun fire, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Paramedics said 12 people were injured.

As the fighting raged in the mountain region, black smoke could be seen billowing from Druse villages. The violence spread to the nearby towns of Kayfoun, Qamatiyeh, Bchamoun and Chouweifat, they said.

The area had been controlled mostly by Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party and its militia. Hezbollah on Saturday accused Jumblatt's followers of killing two of their supporters and kidnapping a third.

Lebanon has 17 different religious sects and at least a dozen armed groups that exert some degree of military control over various parts of the country and the capital. Among those armed groups are Hezbollah, Amal, Jumblatt's PSP and the Christian community's Phalange Party, who were all involved in the civil war.

After the civil war ended in 1990, all of the militias surrendered their weapons and transformed into political parties, keeping only small arms. Only Hezbollah was allowed to keep its arms because it was considered a resistance movement battling Israel.

Over the years, the groups have built up their arms and reasserted control in different areas.

Jumblatt, speaking to private LBC television and sounding subdued, implicitly called on his militiamen to give up their positions in the Aytat area and hand them over to the army.

"I say to my followers that civil peace and stopping the war and destruction is above any other consideration," he said.

Fighting subsided by the evening and the army began deploying in the region. Jumblatt's supporters were handing over their weapons to the army.

The Hezbollah-led opposition quit the Cabinet 18 months ago, demanding larger representation that would give them veto power over government decisions. The deadlock has kept parliament from electing a new president since November.

Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman is the consensus candidate for president and the army's success in calming Beirut could enhance his chances of being elected.

Saniora said Sunday the Cabinet would meet in the next days to decide what to do about the two decisions against Hezbollah that sparked the violence.

In Cairo, Arab foreign ministers held an emergency meeting on the Lebanon crisis and issued a statement urging an immediate end to all fighting. They criticized Hezbollah for using military force to achieve political goals and said they were sending a delegation to Lebanon to try to broker a political settlement.

Hezbollah's show of force in Beirut was a blow to Washington. The U.S. has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist group and condemned its ties to Syria and Iran. The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of Saniora's government and its army for the last three years.

The conflict has heightened concerns in the Middle East and the West over Iran's growing influence and its intentions in the region.

Beirut's streets were largely deserted Sunday, a day off in Lebanon. The opposition continued to block many roads including the one to the airport in protest against the government. There have been no incoming flights to Lebanon for four days and no outgoing flights for three days.

In the West Beirut neighborhood of Karakol Druse, which saw heavy fighting Thursday, a man swept glass outside his shop. A gaping hole from a rocket propelled grenade and bullet holes marked the facade of a normally busy bakery, now closed.

There were few signs of gunmen openly carrying weapons, save for small knots of Hezbollah allies from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party sitting outside the Economy Ministry in one seaside district.

On Beirut's normally bustling seaside corniche, workers outside five-star hotels cleaned blackened streets scarred by burning tires.

Nabil Silisty, a 60-year-old lawyer, said he did not foresee another sectarian conflict in Lebanon.

"There will be no civil war. The Lebanese tried it before and it was a catastrophe," said the Greek Orthodox Christian, a resident of West Beirut since birth. He spoke as he took laundry to wash at a relative's house because he has not had electricity since Friday morning.