Beirut's Beautiful Enjoy an Uneasy Calm

Beirut's beautiful people are slowly venturing out of their homes.

In the mountains above Beirut, clouds of white smoke drifted on the breeze as Hezbollah and the pro government Druse militia traded mortar and automatic gunfire.

The day before two Shiite Lebanese had been murdered by Druse gunmen. Scores were being settled. Lessons were being taught. Once again, Hezbollah was showing the people of this small and nervous country who is the new boss.

For now the guns have fallen silent. The army has moved into the mountains, separating the two sides, and yet more families are planning funerals.

The balance of power has shifted here. Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, has shown a new willingness to flex its considerable muscles in the face of the U.S.-backed government and its attempt to confront its power.

At a hotel pool Sunday, families of wealthy Lebanese emerged to enjoy the warm spring sunshine by the elegant Olympic-size swimming pool. They were only occasionally disturbed by the distant sound of gunfire.

"Where is that coming from?" one anxious young mother asked. "Don't worry, it's not close," said a middle-age man with a large cigar wedged between his fingers.

Government Overmatched

Many here see last week's move to shut down Hezbollah's phone network and replace the head of airport security as a serious miscalculation. Hezbollah called it a declaration of war and responded accordingly. Those demands have now been dropped.

The Lebanese government's armed supporters proved no match for the well-trained fighters from Hezbollah. If they didn't know how powerful Hezbollah has become, they do now.

Back at the pool all the talk is of what's going to happen next. The airport is still closed, roads to Syria are often blocked and Hezbollah says it will continue its civil disobedience until its political demands are met.

The group is demanding a greater share of power before it returns to the coalition government.. It wants to renegotiate the election law and it wants to keep its weapons.

For some the dramatic events of the last few days have created a new reality here. The political stalemate that has lasted 18 months has been shaken up. There are new rules. Those rules favor Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors.

Washington's allies are holed up in their offices, talking of compromise and the need for dialogue. But those calls are now made from a position of weakness.

The Lebanese army is emerging with great credit. Unwilling to get involved in the skirmishes it is at least retaining its neutrality and now controls much of Beirut. Most Lebanese say when the unity of the army goes, the civil war will begin for real.

For now there is an uneasy calm, and at the pool, some cautious optimism that this round of fighting is winding down.

Once again it seems Lebanon and its anxious people have gone to the brink, peered into the chasm of civil war and, for now, have pulled back.