WASHINGTON — Iranian-backed Hezbollah's seizure Friday of large swaths of Muslim Beirut in a blow against the U.S.-backed Lebanese government is the latest in a string of setbacks to U.S. allies in the Middle East and the latest bad news for President Bush from a region that he set out to remake five years ago.
Less than two years ago, in the summer of 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bet that an Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon would weaken Hezbollah and its foreign patrons and described the resulting war as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East."
Three years ago, when Beirut erupted in pro-democracy demonstrations that were dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," Bush and Rice made it a showcase in their drive for Arab democracy.
Instead, analysts said, Hezbollah's new power play may have permanently altered Lebanon's precarious power balance and weakened the Washington-supported government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
"In a test of strength against the government, Hezbollah came out swiftly on top,"
said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It is a balance of power that is much less favorable to the allies of the United States."
A senior State Department official acknowledged that, "Hezbollah has made advances in terms of control of territory on the ground."
But he said that Hezbollah, which has portrayed itself as a national resistance movement, might face a backlash for attacking fellow Lebanese. "Politically, they've bitten off a bit much," said the official, briefing reporters Friday on condition of anonymity.
Still, the events in Lebanon are the latest grim developments in the region for Bush as he enters his final months in office.
The president travels next week to Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for his political life in the face of bribery allegations.
Olmert's troubles reduce the already long odds that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to reach a framework peace deal while Bush is in office. Olmert's departure would be "a Shakespearean tragedy" because the negotiations are making quiet progress, a second State Department official said.
Elsewhere, the Iraq war continues to rage. Iran shows no sign of backing away from its nuclear ambitions and is aiding a range of groups in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in what some analysts see as a proxy war with the United States.
The renewed fighting in Lebanon could provide fresh ammunition to Bush administration officials and their allies who're arguing for military strikes on targets in Iran.
For months, the administration has accused elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — a group that supports Hezbollah — of arming and training anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq.
The White House and the State Department on Friday were quick to blame the violence in Lebanon on Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's principal patrons.
"Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring fellow citizens, undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state," Rice said in a statement.
Other U.S. officials, however, said they had no solid evidence that either Iran or Syria was behind this week's events.
"The jury's still out in some ways," the senior official said. Given the potential for the violence to spill across Lebanon's borders, "it's hard to imagine Hezbollah would have taken this kind of step without . . . some kind of green light from Iran," he said.
Lebanon has been in political deadlock for months, and has had no president since last November. The latest violence erupted after the Siniora government earlier this week moved against Hezbollah, reassigning the chief of security at Beirut airport and targeting a parallel fiber optics network maintained by the group.
Hezbollah responded by taking to the streets.
The United States has given the Siniora government $1.3 billion in aid in the last two years, including $400 million in military and police assistance.
The Bush administration on Friday tried to bolster the Lebanese central government. Rice spoke to Siniora, as well as to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni rulers sympathize with Siniora.
U.S. and French officials also suggested that they'd seek action by the U.N. Security Council early next week, following an emergency meeting this weekend of the Arab League.
What remains unclear is whether Lebanon will remain on the precipice of a wider civil war, or slip over.
For now, the struggle is primarily political, officials and analysts said.
"It is a civil war. Who am I kidding?" said Emile El-Hokayem of the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center. But, he predicted, that war would remain "controlled" and "restricted."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008