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.
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."
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.
"Once that happens, we will all go home," he says.
Although those government decisions triggered the showdown, Hezbollah's stunning military success on the streets of Beirut has overshadowed its original demands.
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.
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.