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Fragile peace achieved in Lebanese capital

The Baltimore Sun

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Lebanon's political and military leaders struggled to pull the country back yesterday from a deepening civil conflict that has left at least 34 people dead in four days of violence between Iranian-backed militias and supporters of the pro-U.S. government.

By yesterday evening, the government appeared to back away from the political decree that sparked the confrontation, while the Shiite militia Hezbollah gave up its control of West Beirut, which it had seized handily a day earlier in an offensive that stunned Lebanese and sent shock waves throughout the region.

But throughout the day, there were ominous signs of aggression in a country haunted by its long civil war, including the type of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks that characterize the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq.

At a morning funeral for a victim of the previous day's violence, a suspected Shiite gunman opened fire on Sunni mourners in the procession who had trashed his shop, killing two people.

Suspected militiamen of Beirut's Druse sect also allegedly tortured and shot dead two Shiite Hezbollah supporters southeast of the capital and dumped their corpses in front of a hospital.

And in and around the northern coastal city of Tripoli, fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian political groups left several other people dead.

The violence comes amid heightened regional tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which strongly back the government, and Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah and the opposition.

But a measure of calm returned after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora publicly asked the army to intervene.

"We request the army to fulfill their role in protecting the Lebanese," he said. "I ask them to enforce stability in all the regions and take the arms from the streets, end the sit-in and bring back life to the capital and Lebanon."

In response, soldiers flooded into West Beirut to claim positions that had been seized a day earlier by Hezbollah, which faded back to its strongholds south and west of central Beirut.

The army won the respect of all Lebanon's political factions after defeating an al-Qaida-linked group holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli last year. It is viewed as the one Lebanese institution not beholden to partisan interests.

The Hezbollah-led opposition said it would abide by the army's request and "cancel all shows of armed force" in the capital while vowing to continue acts of "civil disobedience," which include blocking off the city's main airport.

Almost as quickly as they had appeared and seized control of West Beirut, Hezbollah and its allied Shiite militiamen disappeared, driving away in late-model sport utility vehicles without license plates.

The escalation of Lebanon's political standoff began Tuesday when the government outlawed Hezbollah's private fiber-optic network and ordered the removal of its allied head of airport security.

Hezbollah launched an offensive, targeting the political offices and media outlets of the government's Druse and Sunni backers and demanding that Siniora rescind the decision.

The government relented somewhat by placing the ban orders in the hands of the army, which has long affirmed its support for Hezbollah's mission to resist what Lebanese describe as decades of Israeli aggression.

The army issued a statement saying it effectively would not enforce the government's decisions.

To many people, it appeared that the government was trying to back down from its position decision without losing face by formally rescinding the orders.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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