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The Clashes in Beirut: Is the Bush Administration Stirring the Pot?

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The last time Hezbollah shut down the city of Beirut in January 2007 it was not an act of war. I was living there reporting for the English-Language daily newspaper the Daily Star.

Last night when I went to sleep in Brooklyn, after reading (the meager English-language) reports of "clashes" in the capital, I assumed this violence was not much different than last year's. There were images of men holding pieces of bread and placards near piles of smoldering rubber and garbage. I got the usual warning from the US Embassy to steer clear of large public gatherings a couple of days ago.

I woke up to e-mails from friends in Lebanon and news that the violence had gotten worse.

One e-mail said: "We're hearing gunfire everywhere in the streets..It's not fun or funny."

What began as a labor union protest--enforced by Hezbollah--to raise the minimum wage became what another friend called "an existential battle" for the party.

Rumored to be at US urging, on Tuesday Prime Minister Fouad Siniora threatened to have Lebanese Army troops shut down a telephone network operated by Hezbollah in South Lebanon and the Southern suburbs of Beirut. They also sacked an airport official tied to Hezbollah and accused the group of spying on the government through secret security cameras in the airport.

"Touching their phone network is tantamount to touching their weapons and they have to make that clear...They have to show their strength and to prove that they can't be pushed around," my friend wrote.

Hezbollah Secretary General Said Hassan Nasrallah must have agreed.

"This decision was a declaration of war and the start of war on the resistance and its weapons," he said at a press conference today.

"Our response to this decision is that whoever declares or starts a war, be it a brother or a father, then it is our right to defend ourselves and our existence."

Like a lot of things Hezbollah does, the de-facto travel embargo they imposed on the capital 18 months ago, as well as yesterday's, reflect the total powerlessness of the state and the party's own political opportunism.

Last year a source of mine from Hezbollah, Ali, called me the day before the demonstrations to warn me not to go into certain areas--he did not need to specify that he meant the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods South of Sodeco Square, on the edge of Achrafieh--the Christian district that is the Beirut's equivalent to the Upper East Side. Earlier today I watched a CNN correspondent tell viewers that Sodeco is a likely flashpoint for violence to occur if it were to. This is where Hizbollah set up the first barricade to block the road to the airport about 18 months ago.

Ali does not look like the blind-folded militia fighter pictured in American movies. He looks like a bureaucrat with a wife and kids, which is incidentally exactly what he is. He had worked in the energy ministry when it was headed by fellow-party member Mohammad Fneish. After the Shiite Cabinet ministers resigned from government in November 2006, Ali started a law firm to help residents in the Shiite neighborhood of Dahiyeh claim government compensation for their homes damaged during the 2006 war with Israel. (This is the neighborhood that got pounded for a month straight between July and August. The one the Western media has misleadingly labeled a Hezbollah stronghold, implying that the government has actually attempted to assert a presence there. Hezbollah certainly keeps a tight grip over the area and provides residents with basic services. But the government has never tried to extend its authority over the Southern Suburbs, even when it has had the opportunity to).

Like many Hizbollah members Ali was educated at an American University so he speaks fluent, but quiet, English. The only overt signs of his sectarian affiliation are his name and his tendency to raise his hand to his heart and give a mini-bow when a woman tries to shake hands. He was just being a nice guy when he called a naïve, American foreigner unsolicited on January 23rd, to make sure I wouldn't go scampering off and get into trouble.

I ignored his advice because it did not seem dangerous then. Bands of teenagers were manning the makeshift barriers lining both highways linking Lebanon to the outside world. They were kids in plain clothes, with no uniforms or guns. That they could shut down the city, made the government look all the more weak.

A Lebanese girlfriend of mine who reports for an international newspaper did manage to get to the airport by bike. Hezbollah security was guarding the door and wouldn't let her in. They stole her notebook and pushed her.

As far as I know that is the worst it got. No one knows if this will be Lebanon's long-awaited second Civil War, but if the US does not stop stirring the pot by pressuring Siniora and the out-of-touch March 14th posse to assert their sovereignty--notice I don't use a "re" prefix--to counter Hezbollah, Bush is going to have another foreign policy debacle in the Middle East on his conscience.

These guys have been holed up in the government headquarters at the Grand Serail behind coils of barbed wire and layer of tanks for a year-and-a-half. Once I went to use what had been a public bathroom on the third floor of building after an interview, and a security guard told me that the it was now a private bathroom for Finance Minister Jihad Azour, who was living across the hall.

A reporter I worked with back in Beirut just wrote in an e-mail: "It is, for me, a mystery as to why Siniora's rump cabinet decided to act upon the Hezbollah infrastructure around the airport...especially given that they knew abut the telephone system for the past
five years.

"It's had to believe they weren't acting upon pressure applied from outside, particularly given the speed with which Roed-Larsen went to the UN to deem the system a danger to the sovereignty and integrity of the Lebanese state."

This Western line might be reasonable if Siniora's government had ever had any sovereignty, let alone integrity, but his has always been a shell of a state not unlike many of his predecessors. No amount of prodding and "capacity building" assistance--that's code for military aid channeled to beleaguered US allies in the Middle East like Mahmoud Abbas--is going to change that.

Now I'm watching civilians firing machine guns on Hamra Street, the main commercial drag of West Beirut--and for those who need an American link to comprehend what's at stake, a stone's throw from the American University of Beirut.