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Hezbollah Violently Strikes Out, Blocks Off Highways Into Beirut

By Nada Bakri
and Hassan M. Fattah
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BEIRUT, LEBANON

Thousands of supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is seeking to bring down the pro-Western government, clashed with government supporters and blocked highways leading into the Lebanese capital Tuesday, raising fears that the political crisis might lead to open sectarian conflict.

At least three people died and 100 more were injured throughout the country in the violence, the worst since Hezbollah began demanding more political power late last year, police officials said late Tuesday. Mobs of men burned tires, set cars on fire, and fought occasional gunbattles with their political opponents.

In some cases, opponents yelled slogans with clear sectarian undertones, an especially frightening development for those who lived through the country’s bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990.

By nightfall, the opposition began removing most of the makeshift road blocks in Beirut and announced that the protest was over. But the group warned that more protests could follow.

“This is a one-day show of force for the time being,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

The opposition has accused Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of corruption and graft and has dismissed him as a Western puppet. They have called for his resignation and for a “unity” government that would ultimately give Hezbollah and its allies veto power.

Tuesday’s violence came just two days before a crucial conference of donor nations in Paris to secure $5 billion in loans and aid to rebuild parts of Lebanon destroyed in the war between Israel and Hezbollah last summer. Hezbollah has vied with the government to provide help to residents in the country’s south and in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which were the worst hit during the month-long war.

Siniora insisted Tuesday that nothing would stop him from traveling to Paris.

“I urge you to think clearly where they want to take you, away from your interest and that of the country,” Siniora said, addressing the protestors on television. “We will stay together against intimidation. We will stand together against strife.”

The turmoil started at dawn, when groups of protestors set up roadblocks along major thoroughfares leading into Beirut, blocking roads with burning tires, trucks and rubble said to be from buildings demolished last summer by Israeli bombs. They set fire to vehicles and, on several instances, were filmed attacking cars trying to pass their cordon.

In Beirut, many of the clashes were in mixed neighborhoods, where young men on either side of the widening political divide shouted epithets and hurled stones at each other.

Along one major thoroughfare, the men got into a brawl amid sporadic gunfire. One side raised photos of Sheik Nasrallah, a Shiite, and burned photographs of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni whose assassination in 2005 set off Lebanon’s latest political turmoil. The other side lined up across the street and raised photographs of three Sunnis: Hariri, Siniora and Saddam Hussein.