'Even Israel didn't act like Hizbullah'

Saniora speaks to media in Beirut; Arab FMs also criticize group; Ramon: Lebanese gov't is irrelevant.

Lebanon smoke 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Lebanon smoke 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
"Even the Israeli enemy never dared to do to Beirut what Hizbullah has done," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Sunday. Saniora was speaking as clashes between Hizbullah and pro-government fighters raged on for a fifth day across Lebanon. At least 53 people have been killed since the fighting began. Arab foreign ministers called for an immediate cease-fire to quell the worst sectarian violence since Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War. The Arab diplomats also agreed to immediately send a high-level delegation to Beirut to try and mediate a way out of Lebanon's crisis. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani will head the delegation, the Cairo-based organization said in a statement. It did not name the other members of the mission. The urgent call of the Arab League, which held emergency talks in Cairo on Sunday, is a sign of growing concern among many of the region's leaders - such as Moussa - who say the current situation is "very dangerous and very sensitive." The league called for an immediate halt to all violence in the mountains of Lebanon and in other regions, for the withdrawal of armed groups from the conflict zones, and for the parties to allow the Lebanese army to deploy and preserve the nation's security. The league also called for an immediate halt to "shelling, shooting and all forms and incidents of armed violence," according to a statement read by its deputy secretary-general, Ahmed Bin Hilli, and broadcast on Al-Jazeera. Following heavy clashes earlier in the day between pro-government supporters of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt and Shi'ite gunmen and their allies in Lebanon's central mountains, Jumblatt called on his top Druse opponent to mediate a cease-fire and hand over the mountain region to Lebanese troops. Shortly afterward, Talal Erslan, the leading Druse leader in the opposition, called for all opposition groups to cease fire immediately in the mountains. He urged Jumblatt's supporters to hand over their weapons and offices to the army. Jumblatt, speaking to private LBC television, implicitly called on his militiamen to hand over their positions to the army. "I say to my followers that civil peace and stopping the war and destruction is above any other consideration," he said. In Beirut, following four days of fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites, many of the roads remained blocked, including the one to the airport, in a persistent "civil disobedience campaign" from the opposition. The violence erupted after the government confronted Hizbullah last week, saying it would sack the chief of airport security for alleged ties to the Shi'ite group and declared its private telephone network illegal and a threat to state security. The army has offered Hizbullah a compromise, allowing the airport security chief to retain his post and recommending to the government that it reverse its decision on the phone network. It is widely believed the cabinet will revoke its decisions within a few days. The clashes grew out of a long-simmering power struggle between the Hizbullah-led opposition and the US-backed government. The opposition quit the cabinet 17 months ago, demanding a veto over all government decisions. The deadlock has kept parliament from electing a new president since November. The Arab League adopted an initiative earlier this year calling for a national unity government in which no party has veto power, the election of the current army chief as president, and a new electoral law. Moussa, in a brief interview broadcast on Al-Jazeera, told Arab reporters on Saturday that "there was no other formula to preserve... Lebanon and its peace and security." Some observers in Lebanon say recent events are further proof of Hizbullah's strength in the country. "Hizbullah hasn't really won anything, but they've just demonstrated what everyone here knows - that they are the most powerful force on the ground here," said a Western journalist who has lived in Beirut "for a long time" and who asked not to be identified. "It's so obvious to anyone who works here, lives here, or has been here for any period of time." The Lebanese government chose to confront Hizbullah following a series of meetings with US government officials, who list the group as a terrorist organization, the journalist said. For the internal crisis to be resolved, he argues, there must be a compromise "that reflects the support that many people have for Hizbullah to keep its arms and that allows the opposition [Hizbullah and its partners] to have some kind of role in the cabinet."