The Shia militant group Hezbollah seized control of key parts of Beirut from Western-backed Sunni rivals today in a show of force as it fights for dominance in Lebanon’s political deadlock.
An ally said the group intended to pull back, at least partially, from the areas its gunmen occupied overnight and this morning, indicating Hezbollah does not intend a full-scale, permanent takeover of Sunni Muslim parts of Beirut, similar to the Hamas takeover of Gaza a year ago.
As Hezbollah gunmen celebrated in the capital’s empty streets it was clear the action would have wide implications for Lebanon and the entire Middle East.
Lebanon’s army largely stood aside as the Shiite militiamen scattered their opponents and occupied large parts of the capital’s muslim sector earlier today 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.
The army has pledged to keep the peace but not take sides in the long political deadlock which pits Hezbollah and a handful of allies including some Christian groups, against the Western-backed government, which includes Christian and Sunni Muslims.
Three days of street battles and gunfights capped by today have killed at least 11 people and wounded 20.
For Beirut residents and those across the region, it was a grim reminder of the troubled time when Beirut was carved into enclaves ruled by rival factions and car bombs and snipers devastated the capital.
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 fuelled 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.