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Lebanon strike vanishes

Times Staff Writer

By the time morning commuters headed off to work Wednesday, the fires had been snuffed out. The roadblocks had melted away. The rampaging youths who had been burning cars and choking off the nation’s roads seemed to have evaporated.

As quickly as they had mobilized a vast network of demonstrators to lay siege to much of the country, the Islamic militant group Hezbollah and its anti-government allies pulled Lebanon back from a fiery day of sectarian tensions and street fights by calling off a general strike.

The sudden peace Wednesday was nearly as disconcerting as the explosion of violence the day before, which left three people dead and more than 100 injured, including nearly 50 who suffered gunshot wounds. Like the massive strike led by Hezbollah, the calm was a reminder that the country’s fate is under the control of a few political leaders, especially the Shiite Muslim movement’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

“It’s bizarre, but somehow it’s also very typically Lebanese,” said Karim Makdisi, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “They can turn it on and turn it off.”

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The reprieve felt fleeting. Opposition leaders warned bluntly that their push to topple the government would take even more drastic forms. Rumors circulated about their next step: what it would be, and when.

As Lebanese climbed back into their cars and went cautiously back to work and school, many were saddled with the knowledge that they were living in calm borrowed at the whim of Hezbollah and its allies.

The opposition, dominated by Hezbollah, has declared the government an illegitimate tool of American interests and is demanding a greater share of power. For nearly two months, the opposition has staged massive protests in hope of toppling the government. This week’s strike marked a severe and deadly escalation.

With security on the brink of collapse, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora headed off to Paris to attend a conference of international donors. This war-wrecked country has been looking forward to the meeting for months as a chance to lighten the more than $40 billion in public debt.

Siniora’s government has staunchly refused to bend to the demonstrations. Officials dismiss the opposition as thugs attempting to stage a coup on behalf of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah’s main backers.

Meanwhile, opposition leaders scrambled to distance themselves from the bloodshed of Tuesday’s strike. In heated televised speeches, they accused pro-government forces of taking up guns against the demonstrators and stirring strife.

A stern-faced Nasrallah decried “the big scandal of the governing militias in Lebanon” and complained that the opposition had been forced to truncate the strike as the fighting spun out of control.

But Nasrallah’s message to the government was cutting. He repeatedly warned Lebanese officials not to be “arrogant,” and pledged to push ahead with the campaign to oust Siniora’s administration.

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“We have not exhausted our options. The next moves will be stronger and more effective,” he said. “The people in power should not think they have a lot of time.”

Nasrallah’s tone was echoed by his most important ally, popular Christian leader Gen. Michel Aoun. Like the Hezbollah chief, Aoun explained that he had decided to call off the strike as inter-Christian violence flared between his supporters and pro-government factions. His followers were peaceful, Aoun insisted, but they had come under attack by gun-toting opponents.

“Today we need answers from both military and political institutions,” he said. “Has the gun become the new rule of the game in Lebanon?”

All over Lebanon, people debated whether the army did well by the country Tuesday, when soldiers mostly stood by and allowed the demonstrators to seal off the roads. Some Lebanese praised the military for navigating the sensitive sectarian tensions; others accused it of backing up the opposition.

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The question is still open: With the threat of more severe street violence shadowing the country, the untested army could soon be called upon to intervene. Whether the soldiers will follow through is a matter of some debate.

“At one point the government may try to order the army to act with more muscle than it did yesterday, and that will be tough,” said Judith Palmer Harik, an author and analyst who specializes in Hezbollah. “Basically, I don’t think they will. I don’t think they will accept that order.”

The army command issued a statement Wednesday congratulating its soldiers on staving off an even greater wave of violence.

“You were accused of being accomplices while you carried the weight alone,” the statement said. “It’s a hollow accusation because in reality what you did saved the people of Lebanon from their crisis.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com

Special correspondent Raed Rafei contributed to this report.


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