The Guardian: Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its opposition allies yesterday escalated their armed takeover of key areas of Lebanon held by the western-backed government, gaining control of the Druze heartlands of Mount Lebanon and clashing with pro-government Sunni fighters in the northern port city of Tripoli.
- Government is forced to back down in showdown
Blow to US as Iran and Syria gain from turmoil
Hugh Macleod and Rami Aysha in Beirut
Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its opposition allies yesterday escalated their armed takeover of key areas of Lebanon held by the western-backed government, gaining control of the Druze heartlands of Mount Lebanon and clashing with pro-government Sunni fighters in the northern port city of Tripoli.
The pro-government Druze leader, Waleed Jumblatt, who had controlled the mountain areas south-east of Beirut for generations, ordered his fighters to stand down after fierce clashes with Hizbullah militants in which both sides kidnapped and executed rival supporters.
The area was turned over to the opposition Druze leader Talal Arsalan, who asked the army to deploy. Hizbullah and Amal fighters later largely withdrew from areas occupied in west Beirut after the army pledged that Hizbullah's secure telephone network would not be dismantled.
The overturn of power in Mount Lebanon was another major blow to the government, whose key figures sat besieged in their homes by opposition gunmen after Thursday night's routing of Sunni fighters in west Beirut by Shia Hizbullah and Amal militants and allies in the Syrian Social National party.
"Hizbullah and Iran won the battle of Beirut," Jumblatt told the Guardian in his besieged Beirut home. "The Iranians chose the moment America is weak in the Middle East. The balance of power has completely changed in Lebanon and now we wait to see what new rules Hizbullah, Syria and Iran will lay down."
The worst violence since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990 was triggered by what Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said was a "declaration of war" by the government after it ordered the army to dismantle Hizbullah's secure telephone network and accused the group of setting up spy cameras at Beirut airport.
At least 46 people have been killed and 128 wounded in four days of fighting which spread on Saturday night to the port of Tripoli, where supporters of the Sunni parliamentary leader, Saad Hariri, burned opposition offices, triggering running gun battles with Sunni Islamists allied to Hizbullah. As many as 7,000 residents fled the violence, which abated yesterday afternoon after a fragile ceasefire agreement and the deployment of the army, which throughout the conflict has remained neutral, ignoring government demands to force the gunmen from the streets.
Arab foreign ministers at an emergency session in Cairo yesterday appealed "for an immediate halt of bombings and shooting, and the withdrawal of gunmen". They condemned Hizbullah's use of weapons inside the country.
The Cairo meeting was snubbed by the foreign minister of Syria, which is a strategic partner of Hizbullah but which saw its influence in Lebanon wane dramatically after its troops were forced to withdraw following the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
An ongoing UN tribunal accused Damascus of involvement in Hariri's killing by an ongoing UN inquiry, leading some government figures to suggest that Syria may wish to use its resurgent power in Lebanon against the threat of the court being established to try Hariri's killers.
"The Syrians could now trade Lebanon with the Americans for the international tribunal," said Jumblatt.
The 18-month political crisis that has left the country without a parliament or president erupted in the immediate aftermath of Hizbullah's month-long war with Israel in July 2006 when the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, called a cabinet meeting to discuss Hizbullah's weapons.
The government vowed on Saturday to continue confronting Hizbullah over the status of its arms, despite warnings from Nasrallah that the issue was a red line.