Lebanese Army steps into Beirut fray

Opposition Hezbollah fighters continue civil disobedience against pro-Western government.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Army patrols: On Sunday, Lebanese soldiers deployed in the streets of Beirut where clashes broke out last week.

A tense calm took hold in Lebanon Sunday after the government and the opposition, led by the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, reached a tentative agreement allowing the Lebanese Army to arbitrate controversial cabinet decisions that triggered recent violence.

The events of the past week, in which almost 40 people have died, demonstrated that Hezbollah clearly holds the balance of power on the streets and underlined the political limitations of the government and its allies.

But the Lebanese Army has emerged as a "critical player" in the crisis and represents a "factor of transition" in the new political reconfiguration under way in Lebanon, analysts say.

"I think what we have seen is the first soft Army takeover of power," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Relations at the American University of Beirut. "The Army has assumed significant power as it is funded and trained by the United States and receives political guidance by the Iranians [via Hezbollah]. It is the first Iranian-American joint venture."

On Saturday, the Lebanese Army, which is seen as the one neutral state institution in Lebanon, proposed overseeing the implementation of three government decisions made last week – declaring Hezbollah's private telephone network illegal, launching an investigation into Hezbollah's alleged monitoring of Beirut airport, and dismissing the head of airport security.

"The Army command calls on all parties to [help restore calm] by ending armed protests and withdrawing gunmen from the streets and opening the roads," a statement from the Army said.

It added that the Army would look into the issue of the telecommunications network "in a manner that is not harmful to the public interest or the security of the resistance."

The government agreed to the proposal, and the opposition said it would withdraw its fighters, but would maintain its campaign of civil disobedience until Prime Minister Fouad Siniora verbally rescinds last week's decisions about the telecom network and the airport.

Army troops patrolled the streets of Beirut on Sunday, but made no moves to remove the earth barricades set up by the Shiite opposition, nor to seek to reopen the highway to the Beirut airport, that has remained closed since Wednesday.

The Lebanese Army refrained from intervening last week when Hezbollah and allied Amal militants surged into west Beirut, trouncing their opponents in the Sunni Future Movement. As the fighting ebbed, the Army began setting up checkpoints and patrolling main thoroughfares.

The mood Saturday in the heavily guarded west Beirut homes of Saad Hariri, head of the Sunni Future Movement, and Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze party, was grim.

"They have won. Iran has taken over a Mediterranean state," says a senior Future Movement official who requested anonymity. The source conceded that the government's decisions had probably been a "miscalculation," but Lebanon's future depended heavily on the response of the international community.

"If there is no reaction from the international community to restore the balance and show the world that Iran cannot do as it pleases and have a democracy raped and an Arab capital invaded then sooner or later we will have to capitulate to [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah," says the Future Movement official.

Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo Sunday to discuss the crisis, but there has been little reaction from the international community other than condemnations of the violence.

"The US and the Saudis [backers of the Lebanese government] are the big losers in all this," says Mr. Khouri of the Issam Fares Institute. "This is one more example in the Middle East of their boys losing."

Unshaven and looking tired, Mr. Jumblatt sat in the courtyard of his residence in the Clemenceau district of west Beirut. With him were two of his closest allies, Marwan Hamade, the minister of telecommunications, and Ghazi Aridi, the minister of information, all three of them busy fielding endless phone calls.

Only hours earlier, the Druze leader's home had been surrounded by militants from Hezbollah, Amal, and the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party. "We wanted the army to provide security for us, but what can the army do when this militia, called Hezbollah, is stronger than the Army?" Jumblatt asks.

Jumblatt inherited the mantle of Druze leadership following the 1977 assassination of his father, Kamal, and he has since survived three decades of violence, assassination attempts, and shifting political alliances. His political influence far outweighs the size of his constituency; Druze represent roughly seven percent of the population and not all of them follow Jumblatt. A one-time ally of Syria, he has evolved into one of Syria's most resolute opponents and remains Hezbollah's harshest critic.

That staunch enmity has manifested itself in an upsurge of violence between Hezbollah and Jumblatt's supporters, which erupted Sunday in the Chouf mountains south of Beirut.

Sheikh Nasrallah singled him out last week, describing the Druze leader as the true head of the government, not Mr. Siniora. On Saturday, Hezbollah held Jumblatt "personally responsible" for the abduction and killing of two of the party's militants and the disappearance of a third in the Druze town of Aley, which appeared to have triggered the latest round of fighting Sunday afternoon.

"This whole thing is about scaling down Walid Jumblatt," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political analyst who is close to Hezbollah. "They [Hezbollah] have called him a traitor. Hezbollah can coexist with Saad Hariri, as they recognize that he is a the leader of the Sunnis, but there is no room for Jumblatt in all this."

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