BEIRUT, LEBANON — Burning barricades cast a black pall over Lebanon's deepening political crisis Tuesday, as the Hizbullah-led opposition sharply escalated its campaign to topple the Western-backed government with a nationwide general strike.
Main roads in Beirut were blocked by gangs of young men wielding metal bars and clubs and dragging tires onto flaming piles to prevent people from going to work.
"Yes, the government will fall," says a man at one barricade, his face covered with a white-checked scarf and a wooden club up his sleeve. "We don't know how long it will take: one day, two days, three," he adds, vowing that the antigovernment forces would achieve "everything."
Tuesday marked a violent turn in the opposition's campaign for new parliamentary elections and a national unity government in which Hizbullah and its allies – including a Christian faction led by Michel Aoun – would have veto power in the cabinet. After months of fruitless negotiations, the opposition began camping out in front of key government buildings on Dec. 1.
Though leaders of the opposition bloc promised peaceful protest Tuesday, clashes defined the day. Three people died and more than 100 were wounded across Lebanon.
It was unclear if either the government or the opposition were gaining the upper hand in the standoff. But the way that the clashes erupted at sectarian flash points is prompting fears here of renewed civil war – with sparks flying between those loyal to the Shiite party of Hizbullah and its allies, and Sunnis supporting the government, as well as among divided Christians.
As darkness fell, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on the protesters to avoid being "led astray."
"Today's general strike turned into actions and harassment that overstepped all limits and rekindled memories of times of strife, war and hegemony," Siniora said. "Let us choose co-existence, peace and unity of Lebanese, so we avoid any steps that could escalate violence and terrorism."
On the eve of the strike, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general, vowed that demonstrations would remain peaceful. "Because the opposition has decided that all activity should be conducted in a peaceful context, it might take time" to achieve our goals, he told the Monitor.
The opposition was not only facing the government, but an "international conspiracy against us. For the US is in charge of every detail of the government," Sheikh Qassem said in the interview. "If the government's decisions were made by itself and not from international pressure, the government would have fallen by Dec. 10."
At the close of Tuesday's events, Qassem told the Al Jazeera TV network that the strike would continue. "We will do our utmost to maintain control of ourselves and our supporters but I share with you the concern about the other side, which has no such controls."
Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declared Monday that "if they kill 1,000 of us, we will not use our weapons against them." He asked his followers to "avoid insults and sectarian slogans."
Tuesday's general strike was timed to come before a donor conference Thursday in Paris, that is designed to bolster Siniora's embattled government with cash from the West and Sunni Arab nations.
Many shops, schools, and businesses closed their doors – in some areas because people supported the strike, in others because barricades prevented them from getting to work.
Hizbullah has long decried sectarianism in Lebanese politics, despite being a Shiite resistance group. But even though the opposition alliance includes a prominent Christian faction, its demands have been interpreted by critics as a Shiite power grab.
"What is happening is a revolution and a coup attempt," Christian leader and former warlord Samir Geagea told Al Jazeera, according to Reuters. "This is direct terrorism to paralyze the country."
Tuesday, Hizbullah members controlled many opposition checkpoints efficiently, though not without menace. At one barricade on a road south of Beirut, toward the airport, a man broke a bottle against a concrete barrier to fashion a jagged-edged weapon.
And the clashes had a distinctly sectarian flavor that the Lebanese Army struggled to control. Soldiers and police often looked on, as barricades were erected and cars and scooters carried used tires to points across the city for burning.
When called upon to intervene in one case – during a running battle between Shiites and Sunnis facing each other across a street in the mixed Mazraa district – soldiers failed to separate the crowds with volleys of tear gas and shooting into the air.
Shiites of the Amal Party, mixed with Hizbullah members and moved up a boulevard to set up barricades in an area with strong support for Lebanon's late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the icon of the progovernment parties who was assassinated two years ago.
The Shiite crowd tore down large posters of Mr. Hariri, a Sunni, as they advanced. Sunnis in the neighborhood took issue and a fight erupted with Sunnis throwing stones from a building rooftop, and the Shiites targeting them from below.
Exasperated, an Army officer finally walked into the barrage of stones with his arms raised and pleaded with young men on both sides who were bent on violence, with rocks in their hands and curses on their lips.
The ploy didn't work. The Army finally moved into the building, once their radios crackled with this order: "Now move and split them."
Even when the stone throwing stopped, the scores of Shiites swore repeatedly at the Sunnis and sang vulgar songs about Hariri. They taunted the Sunnis also with the words: "Syria, Syria, Iran, Iran," playing on Sunni fears that Lebanon's Shiites, backed by Syria and Iran, are acting on behalf of those regional players.
Even as the Shiites raised a banner with a photo of Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, their action was met across the street by the Sunni throng, who raised a banner of Hariri, to chants of: "God protect Hariri."
"They only come out if they are paid $100 each," said one Hizbullah man, who gave his name as Mohammad. Then pointing to his fellow Shiites, he said: "These men are resisters against Israel; you cannot buy these men."
Near a flaming barricade on the edge of a Christian quarter, one businessman expressed sorrow at the violence. "It's sad. I wish the government would listen," said Bassim as he watched. A boy tended the burning tires with a length of metal, as if with a fireplace poker; an upsidedown car was burnt out.
"For 53 days there was peaceful protest, and the government acted like an ostrich, sticking its head in the sand," Bassim said, as bulldozers shoveled more dirt into mounds to block the road. "If this is the price to have stability, then let it be."
"They know who this government is really backed by, and they look around and see all the failures of US policy," he continued, referring to the protesters. "They are trying to preempt such a failure, so Lebanon does not become another Iraq."
Bassim says the July-August war between Hizbullah and Israel, in which much of Lebanon's infrastructure was destroyed and more than 1,000 people were killed, is seen as a lesson by some.
"I was bombarded. I was attacked, and a US official came to my country and said it was 'too early' for a cease-fire," he says. "This is unprecedented in history."
An opposition Christian leader, Suleiman Franjieh, speaking on Hizbullah-run Al-Manar TV, said that the campaign will continue. "As long as they won't listen to us, we will not let them rest."
Not all are happy with the strike. Mona Alameh found the road in front of her blocked by a cordon of burning trash cans. Several men from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a secular opposition group, stood by brandishing sticks.
"I was so angry I couldn't control myself," says Ms. Alameh. She attempted to push aside the trash cans with the front of her car.
"The men began beating my car with sticks and yelling at me to turn around. One of them threw a burning stick into my car. I threw it back at him and drove straight through the barrier," says Alameh. "This is my street and my country and I don't want to feel threatened. If this keeps escalating it's going to be very bad for everyone."
• Correspondent Nicholas Blanford in Beirut contributed to this report, and material from Reuters was used.