Shiite Hezbollah gunmen seized control of key parts of Beirut from Sunnis loyal to the U.S.-backed government Friday, a dramatic show-of-force certain to strengthen the Iranian-allied group’s hand as it fights for dominance in Lebanon’s political deadlock.
An ally of Hezbollah said the group intended to pull back, at least partially, from the areas its gunmen occupied overnight and Friday morning — signaling Hezbollah likely does not intend a full-scale, permanent takeover of Sunni Muslim parts of Beirut, similar to the Hamas takeover of Gaza a year ago.
The clashes eased by Friday evening as Lebanon’s army began peacefully moving into some areas where Hezbollah gunmen had a presence.
But as Hezbollah gunmen celebrated in the capital’s empty streets — including marching down Hamra Street, one of its glitziest shopping lanes — it was clear that the show-of-force would have wide implications for Lebanon and the entire Mideast.
Lebanon’s army largely stood aside as the Shiite militiamen scattered their opponents and occupied large swaths of the capital’s Muslim sector early Friday — a sign of how tricky Lebanon’s politics have become.
In one instance, the army stood aside as Shiite militiamen burned the building of the newspaper of their main Sunni rival — acting only to evacuate people and then allow firefighters later to put out the blaze.
The army has pledged to keep the peace but not take sides in the long political deadlock — which pits Shiite Hezbollah and a handful of allies including some Christian groups, against the U.S.-backed government, which includes Christian and Sunni Muslims.
Three days of street battles and gunfights capped by Friday’s Hezbollah move have killed at least 14 people and wounded 20 — the country’s worst sectarian fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Three more people were killed in two separate incidents on Friday after the Hezbollah takeover. Two of them were Druse allies of Hezbollah who died in a shooting in a hilly suburb southeast of the capital late Friday, security officials said.
For Beirut residents and those across the Mideast, it was a grim reminder of that troubled time when Beirut was carved into enclaves ruled by rival factions and car bombs and snipers devastated the capital.
U.S.: 'Very troubled'
The takeover by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah was a blow to U.S. policy as President Bush’s administration has been a staunch supporter of the government in Beirut over the last three years.
“We are very troubled by the recent actions of Hezbollah,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Friday.
“We urge Hezbollah to stop their attempt to defy the lawful decisions taken by the democratically elected Lebanese government. We also urge Iran and Syria to stop their support of Hezbollah and its destabilizing effects on Lebanon,” he added.
In a statement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, was killing and injuring innocent civilians in Lebanon and trying to protect its "state-within-a-state."
The fighting also was certain to have implications for the entire Middle East at a time when Sunni-Shiite tensions are high. The tensions are fueled in part by the rivalry between predominantly Shiite Iran, which sponsors Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The leaders of Qatar and Syria held talks on Lebanon in Damascus, which wields influence with Hezbollah and has close relations with Iran. Syria’s official news agency said the two sides agreed the conflict in Lebanon was an internal affair and expressed hope the feuding parties would find a solution through dialogue.
About 100 Shiite Hezbollah militants wearing matching camouflage uniforms and carrying assault rifles marched down Hamra Street, a normally vibrant commercial strip in a mainly Sunni area of Beirut. They took up positions in corners and sidewalks and stopped the few cars braving the empty streets to search their trunks.
On nearby streets, dozens of fighters from another Hezbollah-allied party appeared, some wearing masks and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The Hezbollah takeover was peaceful in some neighborhoods as the militants fanned out across the Muslim sector of the city.
Later in the day, Lebanese troops began taking up positions in some Sunni neighborhoods abandoned by the pro-government groups, but did not intervene in the clashes, which had largely tapered off into sporadic gunfire by early afternoon. Some of the gunfire was celebratory in the air by the militants.
A senior security official said the army began deploying on some streets with the end of the clashes and would soon take over the Sunnis’ last stronghold of Tarik Jadideh. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In some cases Hezbollah handed over newly won positions to Lebanese troops, presumably after having made clear to everyone its strength ahead of the next round of negotiations with opponents over the country’s political future.
Hezbollah’s power was demonstrated dramatically Friday morning when it forced the TV station affiliated to the party of Lebanon’s top Sunni lawmaker, Saad Hariri, off the air. Gunmen also set the offices of the party’s newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, on fire in the coastal neighborhood of Ramlet el-Bayda.
Later in the afternoon, anti-government gunmen loyal to a pro-Syrian group attacked and set on fire a two-story building where Hariri’s Future TV have their archives. The building, in the western neighborhood of Rawche, is about 100 yards from the Saudi embassy.
With top leaders Hariri of the Sunnis and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt besieged in their residences in Muslim western Beirut, officials of the pro-government majority held an emergency meeting in a mountain town in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut
After the meeting, they issued a statement calling on the army to take control of the streets and urging Arab and international intervention to pressure the countries that support Hezbollah — meaning Iran and Syria.
“The bloody coup d’etat aims at returning Syria to Lebanon and placing Iran on the Mediterranean,” said the statement read by Christian pro-government leader Samir Geagea. “Violence will not terrorize us, but it will increase our resolve,” he said.
He said the Hezbollah takeover violated the constitution which governs Christian-Muslim coexistence in Lebanon.
Late Friday, a group of gunmen fired about a dozen bullets at a statue of Rafik Hariri next to the seafront road where he was killed in a massive 2005 truck bombing. The statue was raised in February on the anniversary of the assassination.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and several ministers were holed up in Saniora’s downtown office surrounded by troops and police.
An emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss the crisis will be held in two days, said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki.
The unrest has virtually shut down Lebanon’s international airport and barricades closed major highways. The seaport also was closed, leaving one land route to Syria as Lebanon’s only link to the outside world.