AP: Saudi Arabia sent Iran a sharp warning over Lebanon Tuesday, saying Tehran's support for Hezbollah will damage its relations with other Muslim and Arab countries.
The Associated Press
By SAM F. GHATTAS
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Saudi Arabia sent Iran a sharp warning over Lebanon Tuesday, saying Tehran's support for Hezbollah will damage its relations with other Muslim and Arab countries.
More soldiers fanned out through Beirut, with orders to use force to restore security to a nation shaken by nearly a week of sectarian clashes. Lebanese buried more of their dead and tried to resume life in a capital dissected by roadblocks.
What began as a political struggle 1 1/2 years ago with Shiite ministers bolting from the Cabinet devolved last week into Lebanon's worst fighting since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, with at least 54 people dead and scores wounded.
Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas and allied Amal gunmen have swept through large Sunni swaths of Beirut, neighborhoods that support the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a Sunni.
On Tuesday, the strife between Lebanon's government supporters and opponents expanded into a wider regional standoff between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and the world's largest Shiite nation, Iran. Iran supports Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia backs Saniora's Sunni-led government.
"Of course, Iran is backing what happened in Lebanon, a coup, and supports it," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told a news conference in Riyadh, in the most pointed criticism of Tehran. "This will affect (Iran's) relations with all Arab countries, if not Islamic states as well."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shot back by saying Saud's comments were made in anger and likely did not conform to the views of Saudi King Abdullah. He said Iran was the only country that does not interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs.
President Bush weighed in earlier, telling Al-Arabiya television Monday that Washington would continue to support the Lebanese government and military, and would keep up pressure on Iran and Syria. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has repeatedly called for it to disarm.
As Bush travels to the Middle East Wednesday for a trip that includes visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the flare-up is a sign that nervousness is growing about Iran's expanding influence.
Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt worry that Iran wants to flex its muscle and assume a larger and strategic role in the region — taking power and influence that was historically theirs.
Iran, in turn, accuses U.S.-allied Arab countries like Egypt of merely bending to America's will and pushing its agenda in the region.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who is traveling with Bush, told reporters that the U.S. is trying to rally international support for Lebanon's U.S.-backed government.
"Obviously, we are also going to talk to various countries about additional pressure that can be put on Syria and Iran because in our view they are what is behind this," said Hadley, indicating that a starting point might be the coming U.N. Security Council meeting in New York. "There is obviously more to do."
Regarding the possibility of more sanctions, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams said: "We'll see what happens in New York."
The growing tension has wide implications for American and Western goals in the region — with the West generally allied more with the Arab governments and also worried about Iran's intentions.
The same dynamic is playing out over Iraq — which also has been a strong source of discord among Arab countries, who generally support Sunnis there, and Iran, which is closely allied to both the Shiite-led government and to Shiite splinter groups like the Mahdi Army.
On the edge of Beirut, funeral processions snaked Tuesday through mountain towns where civilians and combatants were buried.
Among them were Sunni lawyer Haitham Tabbara, 35, and his mother Amal, killed in a rocket explosion in Ras el-Nabeh as they tried to escape the fighting. Two brothers were later shot as they rushed to the hospital upon hearing the news.
"He was a peaceful man who never got involved in politics, always defending the oppressed and supporting what is right," said fellow lawyer Tarek Labban. "We don't like war … and don't want more victims like him."
At a Shiite cemetery nearby, three Hezbollah fighters were buried as comrades marched with photos of the slain men.
An Arab League delegation was expected in Beirut this week to try to bring Lebanon's feuding parties toward consensus, and resolve a troubling political crisis that has left the country without a president since November.
Violence erupted last week after the U.S.-backed government sacked the airport security chief for alleged ties to Hezbollah, and declared the militant group's private telephone network illegal.
Hezbollah revolted and drove out the government's Sunni supporters in street fighting that spread from the capital to mountains overlooking Beirut and even to the northern city of Tripoli. A cease-fire largely halted the clashes on Monday.
The army has suggested a compromise: that the airport security chief retain his post and the government reverse its decision on the phone network. The government has not yet responded to the recommendation.
Speaking for the first time since he was besieged in his west Beirut home, top Sunni leader and parliamentary majority chief Saad Hariri said Tuesday he supports canceling the Cabinet decisions "to save Lebanon."
Hariri also blamed Hezbollah's backers in Syria and Iran for orchestrating the onslaught.
"This has been decided by the Iranian and Syrian regimes that wanted to play a political game in Lebanon's streets… For us nothing has changed," he told a news conference in Beirut.
"We will not negotiate with someone having a pistol pointed to our head," Hariri said.
Hariri also has close ties to Saudi Arabia. His father, assassinated former premier Rafik Hariri, amassed a fortune working on building projects in Saudi, many of them commissioned by the royal family. He used that fortune to rebuild Beirut after the 15-year civil war, a popular move that bolstered his rise to power.