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Archive for Monday, May 12, 2008

Lebanese violence moves beyond capital

May 12, 2008

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— 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 and 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 moves 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."

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