For a year, the main Lebanese political faction backed by the United States built a Sunni Muslim militia here under the guise of private security companies, Lebanese security experts and officials said.
The fighters, aligned with Saad Hariri's Future movement, were trained and armed to counter the heavily armed Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and protect their turf in a potential military confrontation.
But in a single night late last week, the curious experiment in private-sector warfare crumbled.
Attacked by Hezbollah, the Future movement fighters quickly fled Beirut or gave up their weapons. Afterward, some of the fighters said they felt betrayed by their political patrons, who failed to give them the means to protect themselves while official security forces stood aside and let Hezbollah destroy them.
"We are prepared to fight for a few hours but not more," said one of the Sunni fighters in the waning moments of the battle. "Where do we get ammunition and weapons from? We are blocked. The roads are blocked. Even Saad Hariri has left us to face our fate alone."
The head of a conventional private security firm in Beirut, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Sunni force was "not really ready."
"You can't just spend millions of dollars to build an army in one year," he said. "They have to be motivated and believe in something. They have to be willing to die."
Lebanon's U.S.-backed government and the Iranian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah have been mired in a political stalemate for more than a year. The country has been without a president since November.
Amid the political crisis that has sharpened differences among various religious communities, Lebanon's army and Internal Security Forces had played a peacekeeping role, preventing clashes without confronting any of the different armed groups. They feared any robust intervention would break the unity of the armed forces and plunge the country into civil war.
But the crisis has created a power vacuum. Hariri's deputies have denied his movement was building a militia, though ranking military officials, independent analysts and employees of the security firm, called Secure Plus, say it was doing just that.
Private security firms are the latest arrivals to a hodgepodge of armed groups that include Islamic militants inspired by Al Qaeda, Palestinian militias based in the country's dozen refugee camps and Hezbollah.
With speed that surprised observers, Hezbolllah last week took over West Beirut and crushed the Future movement's fighters.
Hezbollah said its move was aimed at stopping the government, which had outlawed the militant group's private communication system, from hampering its ability to confront Israel. But it appears the Shiite militia's main targets were the Future fighters, some of them operating under the guise of Secure Plus.
For months, Lebanese security officials in the army and the Internal Security Forces warily watched the growth of the Future-Secure Plus fighting force. Officials close to and inside Hezbollah said they were monitoring the growth of the potential threat.
Over the last year, Secure Plus went from a small security company to an organization with 3,000 employees and unofficial associates on the payroll, mostly poor Sunnis from the country's north. Some were armed with pistols and assault rifles.
"We have . . . thousands of young people in plainclothes working with us all over the country," a company official said before the clashes started.
Even those who feared the development hoped the Future movement's growing military capacity would create a "balance of terror" with the more heavily armed Shiite fighters, government officials and members of the group say.
"On the one side, Hezbollah has trained military groups allied with it," said a high-ranking official with the Internal Security Forces, which has received $60 million in training and equipment from the U.S.
"On the other side, the Future movement has created security firms to protect itself."
Secure Plus declined multiple requests for interviews. It was the largest of dozens of security firms that have sprung up in recent years. Run by retired Lebanese army officers, it ostensibly provides security for banks, hotels and offices. Hariri's media office denied there were any official links between Secure Plus and the Future movement.
"Future bloc has members of parliament, not fighters," said Hani Hammoud, a spokesman for Hariri. It "believes in the rule of law, and that it is up to official security and military agencies to resolve any problem that might arise."
Secure Plus employees, in beige pants and maroon shirts, were drilled for months in basic military training, including hand-to-hand combat. At least two dozen informal offices were opened in Beirut.
For a monthly salary of at least $350, they served eight hours a day guarding offices, patrolling neighborhoods on motorcycles, communicating via walkie-talkie and remaining on call to defend against threats to Sunni neighborhoods or offices of the Future bloc, employees of the company said. Though the group was officially barred from carrying weapons, many had them anyway. One said he bought guns from Hezbollah.
In the last few months, fighting regularly broke out between Sunni supporters of the Future bloc working formally or informally with Secure Plus and Shiites allied with Hezbollah and Amal, another militia. The clashes often took place in West Beirut, a patchwork of Sunni and Shiite areas.
The government became so worried about street battles that in February it convened an emergency meeting of military officials and government and opposition leaders. All agreed to stand by the army and the security forces if they intervened, even if it meant some of their own fighters would sustain casualties. But Lebanon's weak government made little attempt to interdict the arming of such groups.
"We cannot ask the Christian Lebanese or Sunni Lebanese to give up their arms when others have arms," said Ahmed Fatfat, a leader of the Future bloc and a Cabinet minister.
When the clashes began last week, the Sunni fighters proved no match for Hezbollah's firepower, discipline and intelligence capabilities.
Secure Plus and Future movement offices and strongholds were pummeled. Hezbollah first targeted Future movement positions in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, easily defeating them.
Meanwhile, the Shiite militiamen encircled but did not enter Sunni strongholds, terrorizing fighters into giving up without causing huge casualties on either side.
Hezbollah also shut down the Future movement's media outlets, cutting off its ability to rally public support.
The Sunni fighters may have been lulled into a false belief that Hezbollah would not enter into full-fledged confrontation. The security company executive said the Future fighters were caught off guard by the speed of the offensive.
"Maybe they thought they could hold Hezbollah off for a few days or a few weeks before help arrived," he said. "They faced an onslaught that they had never planned for."
After the Future movement fighters gave up, Hezbollah handed them over to the Lebanese army, freeing itself of caring for prisoners while preventing the captured fighters from reentering the battle for at least a few days.
At a hospital near the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, a Future movement fighter employed by Secure Plus wandered stunned in his pajamas with his two sons, who also served in the Sunni militia. His sons had suffered minor wounds after being beaten up by Hezbollah fighters.
Once he realized that Hezbollah's victory was inevitable, he and his sons tried to escape their rivals' clutches by staying home. But to no avail; Hezbollah knew where they lived.
"I didn't leave my home," he said. "They came for us."
Daragahi is a Times staff writer and Rafei a special correspondent.