Lebanon asks for international help

Times Staff Writer

Shaken by a Hezbollah military offensive in recent days, Lebanon's pro-Western parties have launched an intensive campaign to lobby allies in Washington, Europe and the Arab world to intervene diplomatically or even militarily on their behalf, officials here said.

But there was little sign Monday that the West was prepared to intervene.

Six days of fighting had left at least 58 dead and 198 injured, and unsettled the delicate political and sectarian balance in one of Lebanon's worst outbreaks of unrest since the 1975-90 civil war.

The ruling political coalition was dealt a major blow late last week when gunmen with Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militia, swarmed into the western half of the capital and crushed fighters loyal to a leading Sunni Muslim faction. The offensive was sparked when the government decided to fire the pro-Hezbollah head of security at the country's international airport and shut down the group's secure phone network.

The government stepped back from the decision, and the Shiite militia quickly receded, handing over formal control of mostly Sunni West Beirut to the Lebanese army over the weekend. But clashes between pro- and anti-government factions erupted around the country and reportedly continued in northern Lebanon on Monday.

The Lebanese army, which stood back from the fighting for fear of exacerbating sectarian differences, issued a statement late Monday declaring that it would begin using force to halt sporadic outbreaks of violence.

The coalition of pro-Western Christian, Sunni and Druze politicians under the so-called March 14 banner has embarked on an effort to draw international backers into the conflict, said coalition leaders and Western diplomats. They fear Hezbollah is trying to use its military strength to cow the government into submitting to its demands, which include noninterference with the militia's drive to build up its arsenal to confront Israel.

The coalition's arguments appear aimed at playing on Western and Arab officials' fears of growing Iranian power. The Lebanese officials want other countries to pressure Iran and its ally, Syria, by seeking condemnation of and perhaps new economic sanctions against the two nations at the U.N. Security Council.

One official went so far as to suggest unspecified attacks on Damascus, the Syrian capital, to punish Hezbollah's backer and restore a regional balance of power.

"Iran took a decision to take Lebanon hostage, and from Lebanon, come back to the Mediterranean Sea to be able to infiltrate much more easily the whole Arab world," said another official, Nayla Mouawad, a minister in the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. "It is very obvious that we're not getting a clear-cut reaction from the U.S., Arabs and the international community which is sufficient to the gravity of the situation."

The faction's officials have telephoned contacts in the White House and the State Department and deployed lobbyists in Washington to press the U.S. government, Mouawad said. They have also canvassed diplomatic contacts in Beirut and abroad to ask for more forceful condemnations of Hezbollah's move, said officials in the March 14 camp.

According to one March 14 official, the president of Tunisia called Syrian President Bashar Assad to seek an assurance that Hezbollah would stay away from the Lebanese prime minister's palace, the Grand Serail.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined a telephone conference Monday of March 14 lobbyists and the foreign ministers of European and Arab nations as well as European Union, Arab League and United Nations officials, news agencies reported.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa is set to lead a delegation of regional foreign ministers to Lebanon in an attempt to defuse the crisis. Both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Rice have called Siniora to express support for the Lebanese government, a measure that most analysts considered minor.

But despite words of support from Washington, there was little sign it would forcefully rescue its Lebanese allies. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut did not respond to an interview request.

"The Americans are telling March 14 they have to resist," said one Western diplomat in Beirut. "But they're not bringing much operational support."

The White House said President Bush would address the Lebanese situation more forcefully during his trip to the region later this week.

On Monday, Bush said: "I strongly condemn Hezbollah's recent efforts, and those of their foreign sponsors in Tehran and Damascus, to use violence and intimidation to bend the government and people of Lebanon to their will."

But the use of force appeared unlikely. The Pentagon squashed rumors that the U.S. warship Cole, steaming to the Mediterranean Sea from the Persian Gulf, was responding to the Lebanon crisis.

"Yes, we are maintaining a watchful eye on the area, but not any more than we have been recently," a Defense official in Washington told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel bombed Hezbollah for 33 days in 2006 without significantly reducing the militia's fighting power or audacity.

Unlike Iraq or the Persian Gulf, Lebanon is devoid of strategically vital oil and gas reserves. But March 14 supporters hope the Americans and others will come to their aid.

"We're not asking them to fight our fight for us," said Mouawad, the minister. "But at least don't let us be slaughtered by total indifference."



Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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