BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s army said it will use force from Tuesday to stop fighting in the country between pro- and anti-government forces that has recalled the 1975-90 civil war.
“Army units will halt violations... in accordance with the law, even if that leads to the use of force,” a military statement said on Monday. The order would be implemented from 6 a.m. (4 a.m. British time) on Tuesday.
In the northern city of Tripoli, pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen and militiamen allied to Hezbollah guerrillas fought on Monday in violence that has overturned the balance of power.
The upheaval began when Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies overran the strongholds of their Sunni political foes in Beirut last week.
Six people were wounded in sporadic gun battles between Sunni fighters in Tripoli’s Bab Tebbaneh area and pro-Hezbollah Alawites in neighbouring Jebel Mohsen, security sources said.
Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies have swept through Beirut and hills to the east in a series of dramatic victories since May 7, defeating loyalists of the U.S.-backed government before handing their conquests to the Lebanese army, which has stayed out of the fighting so far.
At least 36 people were killed on Sunday in fighting between Hezbollah and its pro-government Druze opponents east of Beirut, bringing the overall toll to 81 dead and about 250 wounded.
Parliament postponed a vote on a new Lebanese president for the 19th time, delaying the session to June 10 from Tuesday.
Hezbollah’s success has dealt a blow to the ruling Sunni-led coalition and its main patron, the United States, which has cast the country as a fragile democracy endangered by the ambitions of Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian backers.
U.S. President George W. Bush said he will discuss Lebanon and Iran during a Middle East visit this week.
“A lot of my trip is to get people to focus not only on Lebanon, (to) remember Lebanon, but also remember that Iran caused a lot of the problems around the Middle East,” he told the BBC Arabic television.
Bush is due to meet Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in Egypt on Sunday.
The U.S. destroyer Cole passed through the Suez Canal to the eastern Mediterranean on Sunday. The ship deployed off Lebanon in February as a show of support to Siniora’s government.
Hezbollah and its allies fought the 2005 parliamentary poll in an electoral alliance with the ruling coalition parties, although their agreement later broke down in acrimony.
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.”
Britain and Germany issued statements backing the Arab League mediation and endorsing Siniora’s government.
So far such Western and Saudi support has done nothing to deter Hezbollah from exposing the military weakness of its foes, such as Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, whose mountain fiefdom was attacked on Sunday.
One source said 14 Hezbollah fighters were among the dead in those battles. Hezbollah-led forces overran several posts held by Jumblatt’s gunmen in the Aley district east of Beirut before the Druze leader agreed to hand them over to the army.
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 paralysed state institutions and left Lebanon without a president since November.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the real goal must be “to get a president elected in Lebanon. There is, of course, a consensus candidate. All of those who are interfering with his election should step aside and let it take place”.
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 Arab mediators will try to quell the violence and tackle the political crisis by securing 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.
Hezbollah reiterated its demand that the government cancel the two measures and attend a dialogue. It welcomed the Arab mediation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned on Monday those behind the upsurge of violence and called on all parties to resume talks to find a way out of the crisis.