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Uncertainty deepens in Lebanon as Hezbollah seizes control of west Beirut

The success of the Shiite group's offensive casts doubt over government's ability to survive.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2008

BEIRUT, Lebanon

Gunmen from the militant Shiite Hezbollah and its allies took control of west Beirut Friday, crushing fighters from the Sunni Future Movement and opening an uncertain new chapter in Lebanon's tortured history.

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The success of Hezbollah's offensive cast doubt over the government's ability to survive in its current configuration, despite an air of resolve by cabinet ministers.

Ahmad Fatfat, the minister of sports, said that Hezbollah had taken advantage of the government's decisions "as a pretext to declare war."

"Hezbollah has gained control over Beirut and has caused a Sunni-Shiite conflict that will be extended for years," he said. "We are trying to reduce its severity and contain possible repercussions."

The west Beirut residences of Saad Hariri, who heads the Future Movement, and Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze community, were besieged by heavily armed fighters from Hezbollah and its Shiite ally the Amal Movement. By noon Friday, fighting had mostly petered out after Future Movement fighters laid down their weapons and allowed themselves to be escorted away under the protection of Lebanese troops.

"It was a one-side civil war," says Hani Hammoud, senior adviser to Mr. Hariri, speaking by telephone from Hariri's besieged residence in the Koreitem district of west Beirut. "The end result is that Iran has taken over the country."

Triumphant gunmen

In the mainly Sunni and Druze Sakiet al-Janzir quarter adjacent to Koreitem, tired but triumphant Hezbollah and Amal gunmen stood in doorways as the crackle of gunfire echoed down near deserted streets.

"The people here went to sleep last night with Omar and woke up this morning with Ali," jokes Hassan, commander of a small Hezbollah unit, referring to classic Sunni and Shiite names respectively.

Hezbollah and Amal fighters forced the closure of the Hariri-owned Future TV station and burned down the offices of Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, also owned by the Hariri family, as well as closing other media outlets associated with the Future Movement.

Still, the war may have ended as quickly as it began. Hezbollah is a formidable military organization that managed to fight the Israeli army to a standstill in the month-long 2006 war. The government and its supporters long ago realized that they could not challenge Hezbollah, should the Shiite party escalate the long-running political crisis into military action. Christian and Druze pro-government factions stayed out of the fighting, leaving the Sunni Future Movement the only combatants to face Hezbollah and Amal. Even the Lebanese Army elected to remain on the sidelines during the street clashes, only stepping in once the fighting had dampened down. With Hezbollah in control of west Beirut, there is no one else left to fight.

Hassan was armed with an AK-47 rifle and hand grenades stuffed into canvas webbing slung over a T-shirt and jeans. A walkie-talkie clipped to his webbing squawked every few seconds as his fighters stood watch from nearby doorways. Hezbollah's plan, he says, was to take control of west Beirut and force the government to back down from its decisions on Tuesday to dismantle the Shiite organization's private telephone network and investigate allegations that it had been using security cameras to monitor Beirut airport.