BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In one swoop, the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah took over a large section of Lebanon's capital yesterday, altering the country's political balance and demonstrating a level of military discipline and efficiency that left the pro-Western government struggling to exert its authority.
In a space of 12 hours, the Iranian-backed group dispatched hundreds of heavily armed Shiite fighters into the western half of the capital, routing pro-government Sunni militiamen, destroying opponents' political offices and shutting down media outlets loyal to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and to Sunni leader Saad Hariri's Future movement.
Hezbollah did it with a lot of gunfire but minimal damage to public infrastructure, though at least 10 people were killed in the fighting, security officials said. Meanwhile, the Lebanese army largely stood aside, underscoring its long reluctance to take sides in a political stalemate that has left the country without a president since November.
The clashes were troubling far beyond Lebanon's borders. The country, long an arena for competing regional interests, has become one of a number of political and military battlefields where allies of the United States compete with Iranian-backed interests.
The U.S. sees the moderate, Western-leaning government as a model for the region; Iran, which nurtured Hezbollah from its birth, sees the militia as a major strategic asset.
The White House condemned Hezbollah. Spokesman Gordon Johndroe charged that the militant group was "turning its arms against the Lebanese people and challenged Lebanon's security forces for control of the streets."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also denounced the show of force, which she said was being supported by Iranian and Syrian elements, and reaffirmed the staunch support of the United States for Siniora's shaky coalition, the Associated Press reported.
Yesterday, fighting that had raged for three days in the capital appeared to subside, though more confrontations reportedly flared up pitting Shiite militiamen against Druse and Sunni fighters in other parts of the country. Beirut's international airport remained closed. Lebanese and foreigners sought to flee the prospect of more fighting by heading across the Syrian border.
On the barren streets of West Beirut, Hezbollah fighters, wearing signature ammunition vests and black baseball caps, calmly patrolled streets, napped in the shade and directed traffic, politely stopping some vehicles to ask drivers and passengers for identification cards.
"During lunchtime if you place food on the table, by the time you've finished eating, we can take over," boasted one grizzled Hezbollah fighter patrolling the capital's famous Hamra Street.
He identified himself only by the nickname Zam-Zam. He held what he described as an Israeli-made M-16 assault rifle equipped with a night-vision scope and a laser sight.
"It was an insult for us to fight these people," he said of Sunni militia loyal to the government. "We fight great armies."
However, few observers expect Hezbollah to try to take over Lebanon or even continue to police West Beirut, especially areas long dominated by its political rivals.
The group's fighters avoided storming government buildings such as the Grand Serail, the gracious Ottoman-era palace that houses the prime minister.
Instead, the offensive was an "object lesson" meant to demonstrate the group's ability to quickly subdue its domestic rivals without exposing its arsenal of heavy weapons meant to target Israel in a potential war, said Augustus Richard Norton, author of Hezbollah: A Short History and a scholar at Boston University.
The current conflict was triggered when the government challenged Hezbollah's autonomy Tuesday by outlawing the group's strategically important fiber-optic communications network.
Hezbollah fighters responded by pushing into the heart of the capital from their strongholds in South Beirut and southern Lebanon, an escalation in the continuing Lebanese political crisis that seemed to catch the Siniora administration by surprise.
"They see the government as at least hurting them in their plans to rebuild their weapons and make their great designs for the region," said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a think tank. "They cannot afford a bit of uncertainty about the future of their weapons."
Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei write for the Los Angeles Times.