BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen and militiamen loyal to Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah battled with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the northern city of Tripoli on Monday.
The violence, which broke out when Hezbollah gunmen fought pro-government forces in Beirut last week, is the worst since the end of the 1975-90 civil war in 1990.
Security sources said six people were wounded when Sunni government supporters in Tripoli’s Bab Tebbaneh district exchanged machine gun and grenade fire with Alawite militiamen allied to Hezbollah in the nearby Jebel Mohsen area.
The fighting later gave way to the occasional crack of sniper fire, witnesses said.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies have swept through Beirut and hills to the east, defeating loyalists of the U.S.-backed government before handing its conquests to the Lebanese army, which has stayed out of the fighting.
Hezbollah’s success has dealt a severe blow to the ruling Sunni-led coalition headed by Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, in what is widely seen as a proxy confrontation between Iran and the United States.
At least 36 people had been killed on Sunday in fighting between Hezbollah and its pro-government Druze opponents east of Beirut.
A precarious calm prevailed in Beirut, where politicians prepared to meet Arab League mediators.
“What has been happening is negotiations by fire,” a political source said. “Now everyone is waiting for the Arab committee to come for the political negotiations to start.”
One source said the dead in Sunday’s battles included 14 Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah-led forces overran several posts held by gunmen loyal to Walid Jumblatt in the Aley district before the Druze leader agreed to hand them over to the army.
Swallowing his pride, Jumblatt had authorized Talal Arsalan, a rival Syrian-backed Druze leader, to mediate with Hezbollah.
Arsalan said Jumblatt’s men had handed over most of their offices and strongholds in Aley to the army, but said he was still waiting for them to turn in heavy weapons and arms depots.
The latest fighting in Lebanon, which began on May 7, has killed 81 people and wounded 250.
Britain and Germany, which like Washington strongly support Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government, issued statements condemning the violence and backing the Arab League mediation.
So far Western and Saudi support for the government has done nothing to deter Hezbollah from exposing the military weakness of its foes and changing the balance of power in Lebanon.
While Hariri, Jumblatt and their Christian allies have retracted the moves that sparked Hezbollah’s ferocious reaction — outlawing its communications network and sacking the airport security chief — they have yet to concede political ground.
For 18 months, the government has resisted opposition demands for veto rights in cabinet, although Hezbollah has now shown it has the military muscle to veto decisions it dislikes.
The political turmoil has paralyzed state institutions and left Lebanon without a president since November.
The United States has condemned Hezbollah’s onslaught, blaming Iran and Syria for the violence.
The destroyer USS Cole passed through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean on Sunday. The ship deployed off Lebanon in February as a show of support to Siniora’s government.
A spokesman at the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet in Italy confirmed the Cole was operating in the eastern Mediterranean on “a routine deployment.” He declined further comment.
Some signs of normality returned to the capital, Beirut. But ordinary Lebanese were not confident the lull would last.
“We are living on our nerves,” Hoda, a housewife, said while stocking up on food. “It’s clear the situation is very dangerous and we have to be cautious. Who knows how long this could last?”
Lebanese officials said they expected a Qatari-led Arab mission, formed at an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Sunday, to arrive in Beirut on Wednesday.
The high-level mission, which both camps in Lebanon have welcomed, is to hold separate talks with rival leaders to broker an immediate end to the violence and direct talks between them.
The Arab mediators would also try to tackle the political crisis and secure the election of army commander General Michel Suleiman as president, the officials said.
Both sides had agreed on Suleiman as president but could not strike a deal over a new government and a law for next year’s parliamentary election. Hezbollah’s grab for strategic locations has increased pressure on the government to accept its terms.
Opposition sources said the government must annul two of its recent decisions that infuriated Hezbollah and agree to direct talks proposed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whose Shi’ite Amal gunmen have fought alongside Hezbollah. Then the opposition would halt its campaign and remove street barricades that have paralyzed the capital and kept its air and sea ports closed.
Sources close to the ruling coalition said its leaders were waiting for the Arab delegation before making any decisions.
The coalition accuses Hezbollah of seeking to restore the influence of neighboring Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination in 2005.
Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khojja and members of his family left Lebanon by sea overnight and arrived in Cyprus on Monday. They later flew out of the island.