updated 5/13/2008 7:41:51 AM ET 2008-05-13T11:41:51

The Lebanese army expanded its troop deployment to several tense areas around the country Tuesday, hours after it said soldiers will use force if needed to impose order after almost a week of clashes between the Western-backed government and Hezbollah-led opposition.

The army, which is respected by the militant Hezbollah group, has played a central role in defusing the violence that started Wednesday by calling on armed supporters from both sides to leave the streets.

But it has remained neutral in the conflict and did not intervene as Shiite gunmen from Hezbollah overran much of west Beirut and the offices of Sunni parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.

The army's announcement Tuesday signaled that it could step up its involvement to bring an end to the country's worst internal fighting since the end of the civil war in 1990, which has left at least 54 people dead and scores more wounded.

"Army units will prevent any violations, whether by individuals or groups, in accordance with the law even if this is going to lead to the use of force," said an army statement released late Monday.

Fears of sectarian fractures
One reason the army had largely stayed out of the fighting was the fear that its forces could break apart along sectarian lines as they did during the civil war.

The army statement said troops would prevent armed civilians from roaming the streets. The army called on all groups in the country to cooperate and said its order would go into effect as of 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) Tuesday.

President Bush expressed his support for the Lebanese army on Monday during an interview with Al-Arabiya television, saying Washington would continue to supply and train the country's forces.

"We want to make them better so they can respond," Bush said.

USS Cole off the coast of Lebanon
The president confirmed that the U.S. military has moved the destroyer USS Cole off the coast of Lebanon, but said it was "part of a routine training mission that had been scheduled a long time before."

Hezbollah supporters and their allies were seen in several areas of Beirut on Tuesday, but none of them were carrying weapons. Streets in the capital were busy as more businesses opened, but schools and universities remained closed. Also, many roads were still blocked by opposition supporters, including the highway leading to the country's only international airport.

The tense areas where troops deployed early Tuesday included the northern city of Tripoli that witnessed heavy clashes the day before that left at least seven people wounded. Those clashes largely died down by Monday evening. The army also continued its deployment in the mountains overlooking Beirut and several neighborhoods in the capital.

Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman is the consensus candidate for president and the army's success in calming violence in the country could enhance his chances of being elected.

U.S. will continue pressure on Iran, Syria
Bush said in his interview that the United States would continue its support for the Lebanese government and keep up pressure on Iran and Syria, which back Hezbollah. The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has repeatedly called on the militant group to disarm according to U.N. demands.

The president also called on Arab nations to support Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Arab foreign ministers met in Egypt on Sunday and pledged to send a delegation to Beirut to help find a solution. The delegation was expected in Beirut on Wednesday.

The recent unrest exploded out of a 17-month political deadlock between the government and the opposition as each jockey for power.

When the government sacked an airport security chief with alleged links to Hezbollah and declared the movement's private telecommunications network a threat to the state, the well-armed and highly organized militia responded.

Within days, Hezbollah and their allies swept through the city displacing pro-government gunmen, as the army stood by.

The army has offered Hezbollah a compromise. It said the airport security chief would retain his post and recommended to the government that it reverse the decision on the phone network. The government has not yet responded to the recommendation.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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