Hezbollah Offensive in the Battle for Beirut

Gunshots, explosions and blazing roadblocks peppered Beirut this week as Hezbollah took control of several of the Lebanese capital's neighborhoods.

Gunfire was heard throughout Thursday night and Friday morning as battles broke out between the Shiite Islamist fighters and Sunni supporters of Lebanon's pro-Western government.

The fighting occurred in Beirut's predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in the western and southern parts of the city.

At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in three days of street battles between the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah fighters and gunmen loyal to the government, which is backed by the United States, France and other Western powers, security officials said.

"All [Friday] morning I've seen gunmen moving in and out of the neighborhood," said Mohamad Bazzi, a visiting fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations who spent the week in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Hamra.

"They seem to be opposition [Hezbollah-affiliated], going through the streets in five or eight of them, going through buildings? it seems Hezbollah and Amal's strategy is to take over parts of West Beirut very quickly, and then show that they can take Beirut very quickly," Bazzi said.

The unrest shut down Lebanon's international airport and barricades set up by both sides in the conflict closed major highways. The seaport also was closed, leaving the overland route to Syria as Lebanon's only link to the outside world.

The fighting marks a major escalation in the ongoing political crisis between Lebanon's Sunni-led, U.S.-backed government and an opposition dominated by Shiite Hezbollah. The Lebanese government accuses Hezbollah and its militia of running a state within a state. Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group in the West, portrays its independent military and political activities as part of an ongoing resistance against Israel.

"Lebanon for a long time now has been on a slippery slope of violence and turmoil," said the U.N.'s Special Envoy to Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen. The U.N. has called for the disarming of all Lebanese factions, while Roed-Larsen asked that Syria and Iran "support [Hezbollah's] transformation into a solely political party."

The unrest began on Tuesday when the Lebanese government accused Hezbollah of carrying out intelligence surveillance at the Beirut airport, then challenged Hezbollah's private telecommunications network.

"The government wanted to dismantle the fiber optic communications network that Hezbollah has built up over the past several years around Beirut and in other parts of the country," Bazzi explained.

"It's a private communications network that Hezbollah built up, a secure network so that their leadership could communicate with each other, something that they used quite a bit during the summer 2006 war with Israel."

Hezbollah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, defended the communications network as a strategic asset he was unwilling to give up.

From Tuesday's confrontation grew a wider battle of words and gunfire. By Wednesday a pre-planned labor strike protesting economic policy turned into a large-scale anti-government demonstration. Supporters on both sides set up road blocks, shutting down the Beirut airport. On Thursday afternoon Nasrallah gave a speech calling the government's challenge to the communications network "a declaration of war."

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