BEIRUT, Lebanon—American political leaders watched with alarm during the past week as the Hezbollah militia laid siege to the U.S.-backed Lebanese government, but few would acknowledge publicly what most analysts and politicians here say is obvious: American policy may bear much of the blame.
Many in Beirut say that U.S. failure to stop Israel's onslaught against Hezbollah last summer crippled the Lebanese government—a U.S. ally—while strengthening Hezbollah—a U.S. enemy. That created an environment in which the Shiite Muslim militia could call for overthrowing Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his Cabinet.
"Hezbollah has more support in the population now because they are the `victorious resistance,'" Cabinet member Ahmed Fatfat said. "And it weakened the government because we did not get any concessions ... the last war was a disaster for Lebanon and the image of the United States."
Fatfat, like several other Cabinet members, has been in hiding at the government building in downtown Beirut for days as tens of thousands of protesters outside demand a new administration led by Hezbollah, a group that's on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
The standoff between Shiite Hezbollah and its allies and the Christian and Sunni government has sparked street fighting in Beirut's neighborhoods and raised the specter of civil war.
It's also underscored a belief among some regional leaders that the United States has lost its footing in the Middle East. On Tuesday, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended in Washington that the Bush administration reach out to Syria and Iran—U.S. foes—in a search for ways to resolve Iraq's violence. The group called for Syria to cease aid to Hezbollah and to stop trying to topple Saniora's government as part of a deal that might include Israel returning the Golan Heights to Syria.
But those suggestions seem behind the times as Hezbollah presses its campaign to force Saniora out.
Fatfat and other Lebanese officials said that while there was a complex set of reasons for the crisis—Syria is trying to derail a tribunal from investigating Syrian participation in political assassinations, Shiites long have felt underrepresented by their government, Iran is pushing against U.S. interests across the region—the conditions largely were set by U.S. actions during the conflict last summer.
The fighting began in July when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, an act that began weeks of thunderous Israeli bombing and artillery barrages—often using munitions bought from U.S. suppliers—that killed at least 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians. Hezbollah answered by launching hundreds of rockets into Israel.
Saniora pleaded with American officials to intervene, but for weeks Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others said there first must be a "durable solution," meaning primarily that Hezbollah had to be contained and then disarmed.
As the fighting stretched on for more than a month and the Bush administration didn't intervene, Saniora looked ineffectual, a nearly unforgivable sin in a region in which military force and political strength are often synonymous.
"This summer was a catastrophe on many levels. This summer was bad news," said a Western diplomat in Beirut, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. "In general, Lebanon is in a much, much weaker position now than it was in June. There's no question at all levels—politically, economically, in terms of unity—everything is much worse now than it was in June."
How did the U.S. response contribute to that?
"It was painful to be here this summer, you know. I'll just leave it at that," the diplomat said.
Hezbollah officials have harped on the Lebanese government's reliance on U.S. help at a time when American policy makers weren't putting pressure on Israel to stop its aerial bombardment.
"It's no coincidence that all those who supported Israel in the war are today supporting what remains of this falling government," Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Thursday night via video feed to a cheering crowd of thousands.
"Does any Lebanese accept ... supporting a government that George Bush and (Israeli Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert support?" he asked.
The sea of men, women and children booed and screamed for the government's downfall.
Asked for comment, a representative at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut referred a McClatchy reporter to remarks by Rice last summer in which she said any peace deal had to ensure that Lebanon didn't return to its "status quo," again meaning that Hezbollah must be brought under control.
But Hezbollah now appears more in control than ever.
The United Nations Security Council resolution—with American approval—that ended hostilities in August mandated that Lebanese and United Nations troops patrol southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's heartland. The introduction of soldiers in the south, where the militant group was used to complete freedom of movement, probably ordained that Hezbollah would move against the government.
Hezbollah "knew all along that Saniora's government is pro-American and wants to disarm them as a military organization," said Hilal Khashan, a political studies professor at the American University of Beirut who's written extensively about the group.
The push against Saniora was an easy sell to Hezbollah's rank and file.
"Saniora's government did not help us during the war," said Hussein Ali, who was sitting with a group of friends across from his shoe store in a southern suburb of Beirut.
Ahmed Musalmani, who sells ceramic tiles, added: "And Fuad Saniora was kissing Condoleezza Rice."
Rubble from Israeli bombing runs stood in piles throughout the neighborhood. Where buildings once stood, craters were carved in the ground. Collapsed roofs leaned against fragments of walls.
The two men were with a group that was heading to join the demonstration downtown outside the building where Fatfat and his fellow ministers were living behind armed guards.
"You cannot play with Hezbollah," Ali said. "We are going to bring down the government."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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