Fighting moves outside Beirut

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The Independent Online

Lebanon hung between fears of all-out war and hopes of political compromise yesterday even as government supporters and opponents battled with rockets and machine guns in the mountains overlooking the capital.

Clashes shifted to outside Beirut over the weekend. Sunday's fighting saw the collapse of pro-government forces in the Aley region near the capital, a stronghold of anti-Syrian Druse leader Walid Jumblatt.

Beirut was quiet a day after Hezbollah gunmen left the streets, heeding an army call for the Shiite fighters to clear out. The city had been the focus of four days of Sunni-Shiite clashes that culminated with Hezbollah seizing large swaths of Muslim West Beirut — demonstrating its military might in a showdown with the government.

So far, 38 people have been killed in clashes that began Wednesday, the worst sectarian violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

The violence grew out of a power struggle between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the U.S.-backed government. The opposition quit the Cabinet 18 months ago, demanding larger representation that would give them veto power over government decisions. The deadlock has kept parliament from electing a new president since November.

Across the country, there were fears of a slide into civil war.

"I don't believe this is the end," said Hala, a 32-year-old employee of an insurance company who lives in a posh area of the Muslim sector that saw fighting three days ago. "They haven't solved the problem yet. There will be another round."

Despite the fierce fighting though, some analysts see Hezbollah's demonstration of its power as paving the way for a solution to end the political crisis.

Analysts said the opposition now appears to have the upper hand, which could force the government to compromise.

"The opposition is in control now. These military victories have to be translated politically," said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a political science professor who is an expert on Hezbollah.

"You can't have a civil war when there is one group that is militarily superior to the others," she said, referring to Hezbollah.

The violence was sparked when the government confronted Hezbollah with decisions to sack the chief of airport security for alleged ties to the militant group and to declare Hezbollah's private telephone network illegal. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the decisions amounted to a declaration of war.