More from Beirut

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Paul du Quenoy sent another fascinating email from Beirut a few hours ago. Here it is:

The situation continues to be very tense. This morning I was able to confirm that Hezbollah and affiliated Shi’ite militias are in control of most of Muslim Beirut. The pro-government Sunni militias were bested and disarmed with what is being described as embarrassing ease. Most of the army has remained neutral, largely because it is itself religiously and politically diverse and fears for its own unity. Since Nasrallah’s forces are more or less in control, there was little sign of conflict when I awoke. When I went downstairs to go out, I found myself in a much more precarious situation. My apartment building is situated about two blocks away from Lebanon’s presidential palace. The country has had no president for 17 months, but Saad Hariri, the leader of the majority party in parliament and son of the assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri (and a Georgetown business graduate, class of ’92), has taken shelter there. My concierge, Emad, told me that a rocket struck the palace gates last night. I had heard several close explosions and any one of them could have been the rocket. Emad said that the four or five city blocks around the presidential palace, including our own, are now completely surrounded by Shi’ite militants. In order to come to work today, which he was understandably reluctant to do, he had to cross the line of battle in what must have been a great deal of danger. He was remarkably calm and offered me coffee and a cigarette. I asked about conditions in his neighborhood, about a kilometer away, and he told me there had been a lot of damage, a large number of injuries, and one person killed. He didn’t seem to believe the official death toll of 11 and thinks it is in fact much higher. He also confirmed that the heavily armed masked men I passed on my way home last night were from a pro-Syrian leftist militia aligned with Nasrallah, called “Qoms” (for “communists”) in the local slang.

I am thus writing you under siege. I am not aware of any way I can leave the neighborhood without passing through the lines, assuming both sides would allow it without shooting at me. A brigade of pro-government troops is stationed around the neighborhood. Last night they were reinforced with armored personal carriers positioned at intersections in a 1-2 block radius from where I’m now sitting. Most buildings have rooftop snipers monitoring the streets below. From my balcony I can see one in position on the adjacent rooftop. I went outside to investigate, despite being politely cautioned not to. A few people were on the streets, mostly men in their 20s and 30s. All of them seemed to be armed with pistols tucked only slightly out of view into the back of their pants. A couple of older people were moving about, as were a pair of pretty college age girls. The local produce shop was open and still doing business. Everything else is closed, reducing me to vegetarianism, though the night time concierge seems willing to arrange to have food smuggled through the lines for a price.

Just after I stopped in to visit the produce shop, the fighting resumed. One of the guys in the shop looked panicked and said in broken English “Hezbollah coming. Go now!” There was a blast of heavy machine gun fire a couple of streets away. Staying close to the buildings, I moved away from the presidential palace and toward one of the army pickets near the fighting. The streets are festooned with Lebanese flags and blue ribbons symbolizing Hariri’s party (Hezbollah’s colors are yellow and green). The air on the street smelled strongly of gunpowder and there was a big cloud of smoke rising above it. I could not see any actual fighting, but an ambulance drove by with its sirens blaring. I got closer and tried to snap some pictures. The sound of gunfire picked up and I heard close shots and bullets ricocheting off nearby buildings. I was frightened but then remembered Robert Graves writing about marching into World War I combat – if you actually hear the bullets, the experienced soldiers knew, then you haven’t been shot. After a few minutes the firing stopped. The soldiers guarding the intersections looked terrified and observed me very carefully. I had the impression I was being profiled as a potential security risk. One soldier stationed by the presidential palace followed me for a couple of blocks, ordered me to halt, and, keeping his finger conspicuously on the trigger of his M-16, asked me in a very agitated tone who I was. I had taken my passport just in case and showed it to him and told him who I am and what I’m doing here. He told me to move along and not take pictures (“Pictures – bad,” he said).

No one knows what will happen next. There are rumors that urban life beyond the siege perimeter is cautiously returning to normal. I can see civilian traffic, functioning street lights, and illuminated signs a few blocks down the contested streets. The Christian part of town is said to be completely untouched by any of the violence. We have heard through the television news that some of the roads blocked two days ago are now being reopened. I went out again around dusk. There has only been scattered shooting since the afternoon combat and the soldiers seemed more relaxed. The local people are hotly debating the next development. Some are bracing for a Shi’ite storming of the neighborhood and presidential palace. Others are hopeful that since that hasn’t happened yet, it won’t. Most just say “insha’allah” (“God willing”) followed by some variation of “it will be over soon” or “someone will help us.” From what I have gathered, Hariri wants to give over control of the city to the army’s commander, Michel Suleiman. Nasrallah has rejected this idea and called instead for immediate talks directly with the government. So we’re in a standoff. Insha’allah, I’ll have better news tomorrow. In between trips outside I’m at hope. Happily I still have water, electricity, cable, and internet access.