Hezbollah, allies freeze Lebanon

Islamic militants are trying to overthrow U.S.-backed government

January 24, 2007|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hezbollah and its allies paralyzed Lebanon yesterday, sending thousands of demonstrators to seize control of major roads, brawl with government supporters and choke the seaside capital in the acrid smoke of burning tires.

The swift seizure of the country's roads took many here by surprise and marked a major escalation in Hezbollah's campaign to overthrow Lebanon's U.S.-backed government. At least three people died and more than 100 were wounded as clashes flared around the country.

The opposition, dominated by the powerful Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, had called for a general strike yesterday, and the roadblocks gave people little choice but to stay home.

The roads to Beirut's airport were impassable - clogged with sand berms, garbage and roaring fires. Some flights were canceled, and arriving passengers languished at the airport.

Gangs unrestrained

At nightfall, the capital was locked down by flaming blockades and roving squads of young men. The roadblocks were being cleared overnight, but the opposition threatened further escalation if the government doesn't step down.

Hour after tense hour, the army and security services gave free rein to the protests. While young men barricaded neighborhoods and halted stray cars to interrogate the drivers, soldiers and police stood by and watched. Security forces in riot gear lined some streets, and armored personnel carriers crunched over the rubble. But to the delight of some Lebanese and the disgust of others, they didn't interfere.

"They are on our side," crowed Kamal Yehiya, a 20-year-old Hezbollah supporter who was hurling rubble into a fire near downtown.

The blockade cracked into the deep well of tribal rage and sectarian animosities that seems to fester just under the surface in Lebanon.

Sectarian anger

"Welcome to hell," said Mohammed Boukari, 29, who stood watching as his south Beirut neighborhood dissolved into a melee of religious taunts, gunfire and rock-throwing.

On one side of the road, Sunni supporters of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora clambered onto the roof of a gas station, lobbed stones and cursed Shiite leaders. On the other side, young Shiite men responded in kind, waving the pipes and bedposts they carried as weapons.

Clad in riot gear, soldiers raced through the streets between the two mobs, shooting into the air and blocking the young men from charging at one another.

"We are from the same neighborhood. We are Lebanese," said Boukari. "But look at this."

Barricaded indoors, the government decried the opposition's tactics as an attempted coup d'etat. "This is not a strike. This is military action," cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat told the al-Arabiya satellite channel.

Call for talks

Speaking on Lebanese television, Siniora said the government was ready for talks with the opposition, and he called for parliament to convene.

"The current, explosive crisis needs to be dealt with quickly by moving the fights from the streets to the legitimate political institutions," he said.

For more than 50 wintry days, Hezbollah and its allies have camped on the pavement downtown in a huge sit-in aimed at toppling the government. The demonstrators deride the government as an illegitimate tool of America and Israel.

But Siniora's government has dug in its heels, vowing not to relinquish power. When hundreds of thousands of people flooded the capital to demand his ouster, he dismissed their calls as a coup attempt engineered by Syria and Iran, the main backers of Hezbollah.

"The opposition was well aware that it was running out of cards," Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Hezbollah expert and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said yesterday. "This is perhaps their only remaining weapon."

In Washington, the Bush administration criticized the demonstrators and accused Syria of fueling the turmoil.

"These factions are trying to use violence, threats and intimidation to impose their political will on Lebanon," said chief State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

But in the Lebanese capital, many, including a medical student named Natalie Rizek, who supports popular Christian opposition leader Gen. Michele Aoun, manned an intersection in front of Beirut's museum, fires blazing around them.

"We have to do something to make them hear us, to make them know we exist," said Rizek, 23.

As she spoke, bits of ash danced in the air and the fires crackled.

"We tried everything," she said. "They were continuing as if nothing was happening."

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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