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Lebanon backs down in scrap with Hezbollah

Thu., May 15, 2008

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Lebanese government rescinded two decisions Wednesday that had targeted Hezbollah and ignited the worst internal fighting since the end of the 15-year civil war, underlining the group’s sense of victory in a battle that has recalibrated Lebanese politics.

Jubilatory gunfire reverberated across a night sky as the Shiite Muslim group’s followers celebrated what they saw as a defeat for the U.S.-backed government in its latest confrontation with Hezbollah and its allies. That 18-month political struggle has paralyzed the country, effectively closing parliament, depriving the cabinet of its Shiite representation and leaving Lebanon without a president since November.

In a statement read by a grim-faced Ghazi Aridi, the information minister, the cabinet cast the decision as a move “in view of the higher national interest,” rescuing Lebanon from a civil war that seemed dangerously close just days ago. At a televised news conference, Aridi said the step was taken in line with a request by the military and to facilitate a high-profile Arab mediation effort that began Wednesday. But the language did little to conceal what amounted to a humiliating step for a government that has portrayed any victory for Hezbollah as a triumph for its allies, Iran and Syria.

Last week, the cabinet announced a probe into a telecommunications network set up by Hezbollah and reassigned the head of security at the Beirut airport, who is considered close to the movement.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, said the two decisions constituted a declaration of war against the group, and the following day, its militiamen and allied fighters briefly occupied predominantly Muslim West Beirut, routing government-allied militiamen. Its men have since blocked key roads in the city, closing the airport and port.

Fighting in Beirut and sectarian clashes that ensued elsewhere in the country left dozens dead in battles reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Hezbollah had demanded that the cabinet also agree to a national dialogue – a point not mentioned in Aridi’s statement – before allowing the airport and port to reopen.

“I think a new stage is about to start,” said an official with the Hezbollah-led opposition, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We can put what’s happened behind us.”

The government’s loss of standing in the confrontation has served as another blow to U.S. ambitions in the region.


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