BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanese Sunni Muslim leader Saad Hariri vowed Tuesday that his U.S.-backed movement will never surrender to the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and its allies, but his words rang hollow after a week of swift and humiliating defeats at the hands of opposition militias.
Hariri, the son and political heir of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, could do little to counter the deep-rooted shame and fury shared by many Sunnis over effectively losing the glamorous capital to what Hariri called proxy forces of Iran and Syria.
"They simply are demanding that we surrender. They want Beirut to raise white flags. ... This is impossible," Hariri said. "They will not be able to obtain Saad al Hariri's signature ... on a deed to surrender to the Iranian and Syrian regimes." But he didn't say what, if anything, Sunnis could do to reverse Hezbollah's gains.
The trouncing of its Lebanese allies also was an embarrassing blow to President Bush, who arrives in Israel Wednesday and was to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora in Cairo, Egypt, over the weekend. Even if he could afford to leave the country in the midst of a crisis, Saniora faces the logistical problem of how to fly out of his country with its only international airport closed.
For many Sunnis, including several who took up arms in street battles against Hezbollah-allied gunmen in the past week, the Shiite-led takeover of Beirut is already a fait accompli. They sounded like Iraqi Sunnis after the fall of Baghdad and the ensuing rise of Shiite leaders there.
"We lost it. We know they are stronger than us," said Danya, 24, a Sunni mother of two who was too afraid to give her last name because of lingering tensions along Corniche al Mazraa, the front line for recent battles in her neighborhood. "Beirut is in their hands. They can pick it up or they can bury it in the ground."
"We got humiliated in our own city, by our own people," added her husband, Ibrahim.
Though political rhetoric remained fiery, Tuesday was the calmest day in Lebanon since violence flared May 7, culminating 18 months of growing tensions over a struggle for power. More than 50 people died and about 200 were wounded in the clashes.
Political observers fear that the upheaval will radicalize Lebanon's traditionally moderate Sunnis; local media already are reporting the formation of Sunni jihadist networks around the northern city of Tripoli, as well as in the eastern Bekaa Valley, where there's a major Hezbollah stronghold.
In some Sunni enclaves in Beirut, photos of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah or Syrian President Bashar al Assad now gloat from walls that a week ago were plastered with posters of Rafik Hariri. Outside the charred offices of Hariri's television station, Hezbollah-allied gunmen openly bragged about sacking the building. In other Sunni districts, the yellow flags of Hezbollah and the green flags of its allied Amal party fluttered in the wind.
"Hassan Nasrallah wouldn't let us go to the south suburbs and hang a picture of Hariri or the Future Youth movement in their areas, but they came and put their symbols on us," said Nadia Wehbe, a Sunni housewife whose family was trapped in their home during the gun battles. "We're frustrated, our heads are on the ground, we're broken. My husband is having chest pains because he can't take what's going on."
"The Shiites reached their peak now," Wehbe continued, her voice rising and her speech growing rapid. "They are not the oppressed group anymore. They're at their peak and the Sunnis have nothing."
Down an alley in the wholesale clothing district of the Tariq al Jadida neighborhood, where some of the heaviest fighting of the past week occurred, a slim 29-year-old Sunni fighter who gave his name only as Abu Bakr hung his head when a friend introduced him to visiting journalists as "one of our failed warriors."
Abu Bakr said he'd been among about 70 neighborhood Sunni men who grabbed machine guns and grenade launchers to fend off a Shiite militia's assault last week. He said their ragtag line of defense was no match for the enemy's snipers, mortar teams and battle-hardened troops.
"We faced them as long as we could and tried to get closer, but we ran out of ammunition," Abu Bakr said, his palms upturned in a gesture of helplessness. "As for the second round, the guys are getting ready for it, minute by minute, but our top leaders are not letting us go."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Waleed Marzouk contributed.)