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Scorched Earth

A tour through the flaming streets of Beirut.

There is nothing like waking up to the smell of burning tires. Looking out the window of my eighth-floor Beirut apartment, I have to rub my eyes more than once to make sure I am actually seeing plumes of smoke rising from all corners of the city. Are the Israelis invading again? There is no way this could be Hezbollah. The Shia group, which is spearheading the opposition to the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, had announced that yesterday would be the beginning of Phase III in the their effort to bring down the government, but I didn't think that meant a city aflame. Since setting up camp in downtown Beirut (Phase I) and protesting at various government ministries (Phase II) had little affect on the government, most Lebanese yawned at the announcement of a country-wide strike as its "escalation." But the Hezbollah coalition is not ready to back down without a fight.

The smoke rising from Beirut--and the entire country--is from the flaming barricades erected by the opposition in an effort to shut down the country. Bussed in from Hezbollah strongholds in the south, commandos have fanned out across Lebanon to man blockades at crucial intersections. Working since the crack of dawn, they seem to have done a good job. By the time I get out of my apartment at 9 a.m., the only person I see on the street is a bedraggled-looking opposition supporter in designer jeans and a dirty undershirt who leers at me and says, "Welcome to hell."

My first stop is Sodeco Square, situated a few blocks from my apartment in the upscale Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh. Black-clad Hezbollah supporters have overtaken the intersection--spraying gasoline on flaming heaps of scrap-wood, cigarette cartons, and overturned dumpsters--while a Hezbollah-manned tractor augments the roadblocks with mounds of dirt and trash from a nearby lot. Many of them have never been to Beirut before--a city they consider the playground of the rich and corrupt. So, to many of them, trashing the city seems to be an end unto itself.

"When Siniora doesn't hear the voice of his people, the people have to attack him," Abdul Karim Sulh, a Hezbollah activist, tells me as he takes a break from stacking tires. "He is corrupt, and we will destroy everything in our path to destroy his government."

"We're also trying to stop American hegemony of Lebanon," pipes in fellow Hezbollah member Mohammad. "We are so happy when American soldiers are killed in Iraq because they are the ones responsible for our deaths here," he says, referring to the tacit American endorsement of Israel's attacks this summer. Mohammad fears that "America is trying to get the Sunnis out of Iraq and the Shia out of Lebanon" in order to create a balance of power in the region--a fear that receives nods of approval from the Hezbollah mob that has gathered around us.

As I try to break free from the crowd, one of the Hezbollah members grabs my arm. "You from America?" he asks in labored English. When I say yes, from Los Angeles, he whispers: "You like the Lakers? I hate America, but I love Kobe Bryant."

I cross from Ashrafiyeh into downtown Beirut via the city's main highway, which is usually gridlocked with traffic; today, it is eerily empty--occupied only by scattered Hezbollah members wielding metal pipes to scare away potential violators of the lockdown. The tunnel leading to the airport road has been filled with flaming debris, while opposition members drop doors and couches onto the highway from an abandoned apartment above. Overlooking the pandemonium is a billboard advertising Paris III, an international donor conference organized by the government to revive the economy after last summer's war and set to be held this week in France. Pro-government forces have been criticizing the opposition for trying to undermine the conference by escalating their protests this week. The criticism falls on deaf ears, as the opposition claims that Paris III is itself on their long list of grievances. "The government takes money from you, and they give you bullshit," says Hussein Nour Al Din, a Hezbollah supporter who came from the south to join in the protest. "We will not see any of the money from Paris III," he says as he moves more tires onto the main highway.

But the closing of major traffic arteries hasn't stopped Beirutis from their well-pampered lifestyles--a resiliency developed during decades of civil war and, more recently, bombardment by Israel. A middle-aged women in a track suit and headband jogs past me, wearing a facemask to ensure that the burnt-tire fumes don't get in the way of her morning run. When Hezbollah shut down the airport road, travelers discarded their vehicles at the barricades and just rolled their suitcases down the highway. And Starbucks, of course, is overflowing with customers.

But Hezbollah's opponents aren't all taking this sitting down. In the predominantly Sunni suburb of Tariq Al Jadida, which is my next stop, residents were awoken by the busloads of opposition members that descended on their neighborhood. "Siniora told us to stay home, not to fight back, to keep the stability," says Salah Sheikh, a government supporter from that neighborhood. "But we live here. This is our home. We have to defend ourselves." The Sunnis I meet in this neighborhood remind me how much they have been itching for a chance to confront Hezbollah after its unilateral decision to ignite a war with Israel--not to mention their anger at Hezbollah for shutting down their favorite shopping area in downtown Beirut with weeks of sit-ins.

By the time I arrive, hundreds of pro-government demonstrators--primarily from Saad Hariri's Future Bloc--have gathered on the street to defend their turf. Though initial confrontations were violent, including bouts of stone-throwing, the groups soon separated onto opposite sides of the neighborhood's main thoroughfare. The Future supporters are now hoisting larger-than-life billboards of their leader and his father, the slain Prime Minister Rafik Hariri--followed by a massive poster of Saddam Hussein, a way to thumb their noses at their Shia adversaries across the street. After returning the sentiment by flipping the bird and grabbing their crotches, the Hezbollah side--joined by allies in the Amal party--erects banners of their own leaders and eruptes into chants of support for Syria and Iran.

The dramatic stand-off would be amusing if it weren't so frightening, with both sides anxiously wielding batons and winding brass chains around their hands. When one hijab-clad woman yells at the Amal protesters from her balcony, the horde begins pelting her with rocks. She frantically runs inside and returns seconds later waving a poster of Amal leader Nabih Berri--which seems to mollify the crowd. And, just to be sure, her daughter rushes onto the porch seconds later touting a yellow Hezbollah scarf, which elicits cheers from the crowds below.

Bystanders are wondering why the army is doing little to stop the opposition's hostile behavior. "They are either failing in their duty or collaborating by protecting the demonstrators instead of opening the roads and protecting citizens," Samir Geagea, leader of the pro-government Lebanese Forces, said to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. In both Sodeco and Tariq Al Jadida, soldiers mill around aimlessly while opposition activists block roads and destroy public property. "The army is just letting them play here," says one government supporter as a he nurses a head wound from a rock-throwing opposition member. It's not surprising that the army would sit on the sidelines of such a politicized battle--by some estimates, Shia make up almost 60 percent of the army. And, if the army can't tame these protests on their home turf, there is little hope that they will be able to heed the international community's call to disarm Hezbollah's militias in the south anytime soon.

But maybe the army is just waiting for the opposition to run out of steam. As I begin to make my way home along the desolate Airport Road, apathetic soldiers are starting to sweep up the charred remains of Hezbollah's roadblocks. But Hezbollah isn't going quietly into the night. Minutes after a soldier extinguishes a flaming pile of tires, a fleet of mopeds appears with a fresh supply of rubber and wood for the fire; a Hezbollah leader, equipped with a walkie-talkie and an earpiece, arrives seconds later with a spreadsheet that coordinates responsibilities for the day's activities. With the roadblock ablaze once again, the Hezbollah strike force is soon on the road to their next station.

The breakneck efficiency with which Hezbollah is coordinating these events--the scenes I saw in Beirut having been replicated across the country--does not bode well for a quick solution to this conflict. The opposition knows that, since their first two escalation efforts have fallen flat, this time it's for keeps. The Hezbollah activists I encounter throughout the day--some of whom have come all the way from the Israeli border--are prepared to stay as long as it takes. "The resistance restores our honor and dignity," says a Hezbollah activist that I meet on my way home. Hezbollah leader "Sayyid Hassan [Nasrallah] has said that we will have victory, so we will have victory."