Arab League in bid to end Lebanon crisis

Envoys arrive in Beirut to mediate end to street confrontations that have claimed more than 50 lives.

lebanon clashes 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon clashes 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
An uneasy calm has descended on Beirut and other areas of Lebanon as a high-powered Arab League delegation arrived Wednesday to help mediate an end to street confrontations that have claimed more than 50 lives. Later Wednesday, the cabinet is scheduled to hold a special session and is expected to meet a key Hizbullah demand to revoke two controversial decisions that triggered several days of fierce fighting between supporters of the US-backed government and the Syrian-backed opposition led by Hizbullah. Top Sunni leader and parliamentary majority chief Saad Hariri said Tuesday he supported the cabinet canceling the government's decisions to sack an airport security chief for alleged ties to Hizbullah and declare the militant group's private telephone network illegal. He said they should do it "to save Lebanon." At least 54 people have been killed and scores wounded in Beirut and other areas in Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The violence began on May 7, a day after the Lebanese government announced its controversial decisions challenging Hizbullah. The group's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah dismissed the decisions as "a declaration of war" and sent his armed fighters into the streets for the first time since the civil war ended. Hizbullah's guerrillas and militiamen of the other Shi'ite group, Amal, pushed the government's Sunni supporters out of most of west Beirut in street battles that later spread to mountains overlooking the capital and even to the northern city of Tripoli. A cease-fire largely halted the clashes in the mountains on Monday. No clashes were reported Wednesday, as the Lebanese army continued troop deployments throughout the country with orders to use force to restore security, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The Arab League delegation arrived at Beirut airport and was received by a Lebanese delegation headed by opposition ally Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, one of five Shi'ite ministers who quit the Cabinet in November 2006 but have not been replaced. Also on hand was airport security chief Maj. Gen. Wafiq Shukeir, who was at the center of the recent controversy. Unarmed Hizbullah men deployed along the edge of the airport highway in south Beirut ahead of the delegation's arrival. Bulldozers removed dirt mounds on the airport road to clear a path for the motorcade. From the airport, the delegation headed straight for a meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition. The delegation will meet with top leaders from both the ruling coalition and the opposition to prod them toward an agreement to end street fighting and reopen roads opposition supporters blocked with dirt mounds and concrete. The delegation, comprising Arab League chief Amr Moussa and foreign ministers from eight Arab countries, is headed by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, an ally of Syria who has good relations with Hizbullah. Sunni Arab heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who back the Saniora government, are not represented in the 10-member delegation. Syria, which supports Hizbullah, was also not included. On Tuesday, the strife between Lebanon's government supporters and opponents expanded into a wider regional standoff between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and the world's largest Shi'ite nation, Iran. Each backs its own coreligionists in Lebanon: Iran with Hizbullah and Saudi with Saniora's Sunni-led government. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal sharply warned Iran, saying its support for Hizbullah's "coup" in Beirut will damage Teheran's relations with other Muslim and Arab countries. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shot back by saying Saud's comments were made in anger and likely did not conform to the views of Saudi King Abdullah. He said Iran was the only country that does not interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs. US President George W. Bush weighed in earlier, telling Al-Arabiya television Monday that Washington would continue to support the Lebanese government and military, and would keep up pressure on Iran and Syria. The US considers Hizbullah a terrorist organization and has repeatedly called for it to disarm. Meanwhile, an official Syrian newspaper called on the Lebanese to begin a serious dialogue to end the current standoff, saying Syria was trying to restore calm to Lebanon. The solution is "simple and possible and lies in the government's revoking the two decisions taken ... and launching the process of dialogue," Al-Baath newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday.