- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 10, 2008

BEIRUT (AP) — Shi’ite Hezbollah gunmen easily seized control of key parts of Beirut from Sunnis loyal to the U.S.-backed government yesterday in a dramatic show of force certain to strengthen the Iranian-allied group’s hand as it fights for dominance in Lebanon’s political deadlock.

An ally of Hezbollah said the group intended to pull back, at least partially, from the areas its fighters occupied overnight and yesterday morning — signaling the militant group likely does not intend a full-scale, permanent takeover of Sunni Muslim parts of Beirut.

Eyewitnesses said the clashes had eased by last night as Lebanon’s army began peacefully moving into areas where Hezbollah forces had a presence.

Three days of street battles and gunfights have killed at least 14 people and wounded 20 — the country’s worst sectarian fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war.

But as Hezbollah gunmen celebrated in the capital’s empty streets — including marching down Hamra Street, one of its most upscale shopping lanes — it was clear that the show of force would have far-reaching implications for Lebanon and the region.

“It’s a very dangerous moment,” said Mohamad Bazzi, a specialist on Shi’ite politics at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a telephone interview from Beirut.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped up U.S. criticism of Hezbollah’s campaign, accusing the Shi’ite movement of trying to undermine the government of pro-Western Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

“Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring innocent citizens and undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government,” she said.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said U.S. officials are conferring with allies in the region and with the U.N. Security Council on measures to “hold those responsible for the violence in Beirut accountable.”

But analysts said the Siniora government seemed to provoke the clash when it voted earlier this week to take control of Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network, one the militant group warned was vital to its security.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah “had said numerous times this was a red line, so it is hard to tell what the government was thinking,” Mr. Bassam said.

Lebanon’s army largely stood aside as the Shi’ite militiamen scattered their opponents and occupied large swaths of the capital’s Muslim sector early yesterday.

The army has pledged to keep the peace but not take sides in the long political deadlock — which pits Shi’ite Hezbollah and a handful of allies, including some Christian groups, against the U.S.-backed government, which includes other Christians and Sunni Muslims.

The street clashes have been a grim reminder of that troubled time when Beirut was carved into enclaves ruled by rival factions and car bombs and snipers devastated the capital.

The fighting also was certain to have implications for the entire Middle East at a time when sectarian tensions are high. The tensions are fueled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shi’ite Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Hezbollah’s power was demonstrated dramatically yesterday morning when it forced the TV station affiliated to the party of Lebanon’s top Sunni lawmaker, Saad Hariri, off the air. Gunmen also set the offices of the party’s newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, on fire in the coastal neighborhood of Ramlet el-Bayda.

Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this article.

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