In one swoop, the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah took over a large section of Lebanon's capital Friday, altering the country's political balance and demonstrating a level of military discipline and efficiency that left the pro-Western government struggling to exert its authority.
Within 12 hours, the Iranian-backed group dispatched hundreds of heavily armed Shiite fighters into the western half of Beirut, routing Sunni Muslim militiamen, destroying opponents' political offices and shutting down media outlets loyal to the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and to Sunni leader Saad Hariri's Future movement.
At least 10 people were killed in the fighting, security officials said. Hezbollah used a lot of gunfire but inflicted minimal damage to public infrastructure, they said.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese army largely stood aside, underscoring its reluctance to take sides in a political stalemate that has left the country without a president since November.
The clashes were troubling far beyond Lebanon's borders. The country, long an arena for competing regional interests, has become one of a number of political and military battlefields where allies of the United States compete against Iranian-backed interests. The U.S. sees the moderate, Western-leaning government as a model for the region; Iran, which nurtured Hezbollah from its birth, considers the Lebanese militia a major strategic asset.
The White House condemned the Hezbollah offensive, with spokesman Gordon Johndroe saying that the militant group had turned "its arms against the Lebanese people and challenged Lebanon's security forces for control of the streets."
On Friday, fighting that had raged for three days in the capital appeared to subside, though more confrontations were reported elsewhere, between Shiite militiamen and Druze and Sunni fighters. Beirut's international airport remained closed. Lebanese and foreigners fled the prospect of more fighting by heading across the Syrian border.
In West Beirut, Hezbollah fighters, wearing their signature ammo vests and black baseball caps, patrolled the streets, napped in the shade and directed traffic, politely stopping some vehicles to ask drivers and passengers for identification cards.
"During lunchtime if you place food on the table, by the time you've finished eating, we can take over," boasted one grizzled Hezbollah fighter patrolling famous Hamra Street.
He identified himself only by the nickname Zam-Zam. He held what he described as an Israeli-made M-16 assault rifle equipped with a night-vision scope and a laser sight.
"It was an insult for us to fight these people," he said of the Sunni militia loyal to the government. "We fight great armies."
However, few observers expect Hezbollah to try to take over Lebanon or even continue to police West Beirut, especially areas long dominated by its political rivals. The group's fighters avoided storming government buildings such as the Grand Serail, the gracious Ottoman-era palace that houses the prime minister.
Instead, the offensive was an "object lesson" meant to demonstrate the group's ability to quickly subdue its domestic rivals without exposing its arsenal of heavy weapons meant to target Israel in a potential war, said Boston University's Augustus Richard Norton, author of "Hezbollah: A Short History."
The conflict was triggered Tuesday when the government challenged Hezbollah's de facto autonomy by outlawing its strategic fiber-optic communications network. Hezbollah fighters responded by pushing into the heart of the capital from strongholds in south Beirut and southern Lebanon, an escalation in the political crisis that seemed to catch the Siniora administration by surprise.
Some of the government's major political backers appealed Friday night to the international community, the United Nations and other Arab countries for support. The crisis prompted calls for an emergency meeting Sunday among leaders of the Beirut government's Arab allies.
'Changing the equation'
"It's definitely changing the equation," said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a think tank. "Hezbollah is reshuffling the cards and redrawing the balance of power."
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has long vowed that the group would not turn its considerable arsenal of weapons on fellow Lebanese, though it has for at least a year been allowing proxy groups to do just that.
But he said he had no choice this time. He described the Cabinet decision to declare the group's private telecommunications network illegal a "declaration of war." He said it put the government in the camp of Israel, which Hezbollah fought to a standstill in a 2006 war that left more than 1,000 dead. Rather than wait for the government to try to enforce its decision, Hezbollah targeted the political powers behind it.
Government supporters called the move a coup d'etat meant to strangle Lebanon and bend it to Hezbollah's will.
"What happened in Beirut and its surroundings and in its international airport is an armed coup that was implemented by Hezbollah," said Samir Geagea, leader of the pro-Western branch of the Maronite Christian community.
For now, Hezbollah's offensive achieved one significant military goal: crushing the budding forces of Hariri's Sunni Future movement, a constellation of poorly trained and lightly equipped government supporters organized around neighborhood offices and private security companies run by retired army officers.
It also exposed the government's weak hand. Hezbollah was able to quickly take over the capital, its commanders rolling into town in late-model Chevrolet Suburbans -- and with the country's armed forces at times coordinating rather than impeding the militia's progress. Future movement fighters fled for their lives.
Offensive carries risks
Hezbollah's move carried risks, threatening to damage Nasrallah's considerable popularity in the Arab world, to jettison the delicate sectarian power-sharing arrangement that has kept Lebanon at peace since the end of a civil war in 1990 and to widen the rift between Shiites and Sunnis.
But mostly, analysts said, Hezbollah's response was aimed at giving itself and its Iranian and Syrian backers the breathing room to achieve their long-term strategic objectives of confronting Israel and deterring U.S. plans for the Middle East. The militant group did so by further weakening a Lebanese government it has perceived as a minor impediment to a broader vision. For Iran, Hezbollah is a key strategic asset in its standoff with the U.S. and Israel over Tehran's nuclear program and quest for regional influence.
"They're creating the necessary political space to protect what they think they're about," said Safa, of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "They see the government as at least hurting them in their plans to rebuild their weapons and make their great designs for the region. They cannot afford a bit of uncertainty about the future of their weapons."
Daragahi is a Times staff writer and Rafei a special correspondent.