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Hezbollah phone network spat sparks Beirut street war

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday that the pro-Western government has declared 'war' on his militant group.

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"It's a showdown. No one can back down," says a European diplomat.

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Still, it is unclear why the crisis has escalated now. Last week, the government and its supporters and the opposition were mulling over a proposal by Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker and an opposition leader, for a round-table dialogue among Lebanon's top leaders.

At the weekend, however, Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze community and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah unleashed a ferocious verbal barrage against the Shiite group. He accused Hezbollah of building its own private telephone network and of conducting surveillance of Beirut airport using hidden security cameras with a possible motive to conduct attacks or kidnappings. He demanded the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador to Beirut and a cessation of Iranian civilian flights to Beirut.

Hezbollah's telecom network

It has been known for some time that Hezbollah has installed a private non-commercial fiber-optic land-line telephone network to provide secure communications between its leaders and the cadres. The network is extensive, stretching from Hezbollah's headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut to south Lebanon. Since the summer 2006 war with Israel, the system has spread further into the Bekaa Valley in the east and even into mainly Christian and Druze areas of the Mount Lebanon district, according to Marwan Hamade, the minister of telecommunications and a close ally of Mr. Jumblatt.

"It has been installed with the support of the Iranians," he says. "It is Iran telecom, a totally parallel network to the state network."

On Tuesday, after a marathon cabinet session, the government announced that Hezbollah's private network was "illegal and unconstitutional" and referred the file to the judiciary and the United Nations. The UN Security Cabinet is scheduled to discuss Thursday the latest report on the implementation of Resolution 1559, which includes a clause calling for the dismantling of "all Lebanese and non-Lebanese armed groups," a reference to Hezbollah and militant Palestinian factions.

But Mr. Nasrallah insisted that the network "is a regular telephone network" that allows the party's leadership to remain in touch without being monitored by Israelis. He denied accusations that the system had spread into Mount Lebanon.

The government also launched an investigation into the alleged monitoring of Beirut airport and dismissed the head of airport security, who is close to Mr. Berri.

Hezbollah reacted angrily to the cabinet decisions. Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy leader, warned that people tampering with the phone network would "face a ferocious resistance" and be treated as it they were "Israeli spies."

The showdown hit the streets on Wednesday when a general strike to protest rising prices swiftly turned into a confrontation between supporters of rival factions. Hezbollah has set up barricades on the highway connecting the city center to Beirut airport and vow to remain until the government withdraws its cabinet decisions.

But Mr. Hamade says there will be no turning back.

"The government will not go back on any of its decisions. We have decided to stop the blackmail of Iran and Syria," he says, referring to the two countries that support Hezbollah.