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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

"Once that happens, we will all go home," he says.

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Although those government decisions triggered the showdown, Hezbollah's stunning military success on the streets of Beirut has overshadowed its original demands.

"They have won an embarrassment of riches," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "What does Hezbollah want to do now?"

Dazed residents

In the mixed Sunni-Shiite Ras al-Nabaa neighborhood, which saw some of the heaviest fighting, dazed residents inspected the damage in the streets. Cars were riddled with bullet holes and smashed glass crunched under foot on the street.

"I have lived here since 1975," says one woman, referring to the first year of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. "But nothing I experienced during the war was as bad as last night."

A local headquarters for the Future Movement lay across the street from her building where Sunni gunmen had fought against advancing Hezbollah and Amal fighters. Local residents said that the Sunni gunmen had arrived from north Lebanon two months ago.

"They came for the money, but when they came under fire they all ran away," says Salem, a Shiite resident.

The only neighborhood in west Beirut that escaped the Hezbollah offensive was Tariq Jdeide, a Sunni-populated area and a bastion of support for the Future Movement.

"Other areas fell because there are lots of Shiites living there, but Tariq Jdeide is almost all Sunni and the opposition [Hezbollah] avoided it," says Tarek Hammandi.

Some residents spoke bitterly of being betrayed by allied Christian and Druze pro-government groups.

"Some people were supposed to stand with us, but they didn't," said Abed Mohammed.

Even as fighting raged in west Beirut, mainly Christian east Beirut carried a semblance of normality; the only real indicator of the tensions in the Lebanese capital was the lighter traffic than usual. Supermarkets did brisk trade as panicked residents stockpiled basic foodstuffs in case of prolonged fighting.

The United States and France have called for an end to the fighting and Saudi Arabia, a key regional backer of the Lebanese government, demanded an urgent meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

But there was little indication of a more assertive intervention by the Lebanese government's international supporters other than collective hand wringing, analysts say.

Iran, which backs Hezbollah, accused the US and Israel of sparking the fighting in Lebanon.

"Adventurous efforts and interventions by the United States and the Zionist regime are the main cause of the continuous chaotic situation in Lebanon," said Mohammed Ali Hosseini, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also a backer of Hezbollah and the Lebanese opposition, said that the fighting was a Lebanese "internal affair" but called for dialogue.