Hezbollah Seizes Control of West Beirut

After a night of heavy fighting, Shiite Hezbollah militiamen seize control Friday of most parts of Muslim West Beirut from ragtag Sunni militias. The Lebanese army has so far stayed out of the fray.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In Lebanon today armed members of the Shiite group Hezbollah seized control of most of Beirut's Muslim neighborhoods after a night of heavy fighting.

The street battles began on Thursday after Hezbollah's leader accused the Lebanese government of declaring war on his organization. The government is backed by the U.S. and it's been stacked in a political stalemate for nearly a year-and-a-half, with opposition groups led by Hezbollah. The group fields the largest and best disciplined militia in Lebanon, and it's backed by Syria and by Iran.

Reporter Deborah Amos joins us now on the phone from West Beirut. Deborah, you were right in the thick of the fighting overnight. Can you tell us what you are able to hear and to see?

DEBORAH AMOS: It was very heavy fighting on my block in West Beirut. It did start overnight and we had to go to the basement because the flying bullets were so heavy. The pace picked up again this morning about 7:00 a.m. What was happening is Hezbollah, the Shiite militia, was sweeping through the part of that city that's mostly Sunni-Muslim enclave. Now Hammer(ph) Street, where I was, is the business district, but there are many political offices of the main pro-Western party in the government, the Future Party, and Hezbollah methodically seized control, shut them down all over West Beirut. Not quite a coup, but certainly Hezbollah has checkmated the pro-American government here.

NORRIS: So you say not quite a coup, but Hezbollah is in effective control of a big part of Beirut. What are the immediate consequences of that?

AMOS: The first consequence: a major television station was burned. It's owned by Fatariri(ph), the leader of the Future Party. The station was shut down early this morning, was forced off the air by Hezbollah, and then it was burned this afternoon. That's a strong political message. Also one of the militia associate with Hezbollah, they were putting up pictures of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Now, that is a provocation for many Lebanese because the Syrian army was forced out of the country in 2005, and many in the government accuse neighboring Syria of being behind much of the tension here. Hezbollah is turning over some parts of West Beirut to the Lebanese army, but there are still gunmen on the streets.

NORRIS: So the Lebanese government seems to be the clear loser at this point, but didn't the government actually order the army to intervene against Hezbollah?

AMOS: Well, first let me say that it was the government that seemed to provoke this confrontation. It was over Hezbollah's private communications network that's separate from the government, and the government has known about this phone network from some time. So the question is, why did they want to challenge Hezbollah now?

So let's go back to the army. If the army steps in, it has to take sides. You can't use the army against the Lebanese people. This is the only institution that still functions in this country. Lebanon doesn't have a president and it doesn't have a working parliament. So the army, from the lowest recruit to the highest officer, the army represents all the factions, all the religious sects, and they can't be seen taking sides, and they didn't.

The army was out on the streets through the fighting, but they didn't try to stop it. So if the army does take a side, the army could split, and that has already happened in this country during the civil war.

NORRIS: So what happens now? Are there new fears about civil war?

AMOS: Well, it's certainly what Lebanese are asking, because this is all unexplored territory. Hezbollah has demonstrated its power. It can shut down the airport. It can stop the whole country from traveling. It can turn off television stations. The government has been shown they have no teeth. So Hezbollah wants the government to retreat on the immediate cause of the crisis - the communications network. But how the government will respond - with more fighting, with an accommodation at some point - we just don't know. It is not clear what the next step is.

NORRIS: That was Deborah Amos speaking to us from West Beirut. Deborah, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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