Surrounded by a ring of mountains like a concert bandshell, Beirut has great acoustics. So yesterday's roiling street battles in the Lebanese capitol echoed through the city with a drumbeat of rocket explosions and a chorus of machine gun fire that sounded like the symphonic overture to civil war. When an early summer thunderstorm began overnight, it seemed as if the heavens themselves were taking up the ominous theme.
With a cease-fire in effect this morning, many residents of central Beirut loaded their children, their valuables and sometimes their maids into their cars and headed for the hills or for relatives in safer parts of town. Few expect the calm to last. The American-supported Lebanese government appears unwilling to give into conditions set by Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Syrian and Iranian backed opposition, for calling an end to the opposition's three-day siege of Beirut. Indeed, what began as a labor protest by unions demanding a wage hike is morphing into a regional confrontation with all sides refusing to back down.
This latest crisis started when the Lebanese government, which has been holding onto power despite a 17-month campaign of Hizballah street protests, announced its intention to move against a private telecommunications network that Hizballah uses to coordinate military activity against Israel. On Wednesday, the opposition co-opted a planned general strike and turned it into a show of force complete with burning tire and rubble barricades that blocked many major highways, including the airport road. Then yesterday, Hizballah leader Nasrallah called the government's telecom crackdown an act of war, accused it of doing Israel's dirty work, and said that Hizballah would fight to protect itself unless the government promised not to shut down the network. But government leaders responded only by saying that they would refer the issue to the army, which is considered the country's only neutral institution. A Hizballah spokesman rejected the overture, and on the streets today, opposition fighters viewed the government proposal with visceral disdain. "These are the orders of Olmert," said one, referring to Israel's Prime Minister. "If they choose Israel instead of us, they will die with Israel," said another.
The sight of several Lebanese army units pulling out of their positions in central Beirut and returning to the safety of their bases bodes worse than politicians fighting on the airwaves. For the past few days, the army has vainly tried to prevent some of the clashes, which took place mainly in neighborhoods where Shi'a and Sunni districts meet. Because the country's constitution divides power among the largest religious groups, Lebanon's political stand-off has devolved into a sectarian one, with the main action pitting Shi'a Muslim opposition groups first among them Hizbollah against Sunni Muslim government supporters. But the army, which mirrors the country's religious makeup, now appears to be more worried about splitting apart along sectarian lines than it is about keeping the peace.
Just why the government chose this particular moment to move against Hizballah's telecoms remains unclear. Hizballah, which fought Israel to a standstill in the summer war of 2006, is much stronger on the ground than the government and is certain to win any confrontation. Still, Hizballah would have much to lose in an open civil war. Not only would the chaos distract the group from the far more dangerous struggle with Israel, but it could also help radical al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni jihadi groups infiltrate Lebanon. Tellingly, Hizballah regulars have so far stayed out of the fighting, leaving the wet work to street gangs and a few regular fighters belonging to the Amal movement, an allied Shi'a opposition party.
But the government officials who moved against the Hizballah network are known to coordinate their actions with the United States, and the Bush Administration may be digging in its heels into Lebanon while its days in office are on the wane. The Bush Administration is keen both to preserve Lebanon's independence from Syria, which ended its occupation of Lebanon in 2005 under American pressure, and to push for the disarmament of Hizballah, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization and a major threat to Israel. "Hizballah needs to make a choice: Be a terrorist organization or be a political party, but quit trying to be both," said a White House spokesman yesterday.
But the U.S. has little ability to force Hizballah's hand. The Bush Administration has been training and equipping Lebanon's Internal Security Forces. But unlike the army, which all sides regard as neutral, the opposition regards the ISF as little more than an official militia, dominated by pro-government and pro-American officers and composed of mostly of Christians and Sunnis, a proxy force being readied for action against Hizballah. They are unlikely to be of much use. "If they want to fight us, we can kill them in one day," said an opposition fighter.