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Warfare in Beirut means more Mideast trouble for Bush, U.S. allies

McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON — Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s seizure Friday of large swaths of Muslim Beirut in a blow against the U.S.-backed Lebanese government is the latest in a string of setbacks to U.S. allies in the Middle East and the latest bad news for President Bush from a region that he set out to remake five years ago.

Less than two years ago, in the summer of 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bet that an Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon would weaken Hezbollah and its foreign patrons and described the resulting war as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East."

Three years ago, when Beirut erupted in pro-democracy demonstrations that were dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," Bush and Rice made it a showcase in their drive for Arab democracy.

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Instead, analysts said, Hezbollah’s new power play may have permanently altered Lebanon’s precarious power balance and weakened the Washington-supported government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

"In a test of strength against the government, Hezbollah came out swiftly on top," said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It is a balance of power that is much less favorable to the allies of the United States."

A senior State Department official acknowledged that, "Hezbollah has made advances in terms of control of territory on the ground."

Still, the events in Lebanon are the latest grim developments in the region for Bush as he enters his final months in office.

The president travels next week to Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for his political life in the face of bribery allegations.

Olmert’s troubles reduce the already long odds that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to reach a framework peace deal while Bush is in office. Olmert’s departure would be "a Shakespearean tragedy" because the negotiations are making quiet progress, a second State Department official said.

Elsewhere, the Iraq war continues to rage. Iran shows no sign of backing away from its nuclear ambitions and is aiding a range of groups in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in what some analysts see as a proxy war with the United States.

The renewed fighting in Lebanon could provide fresh ammunition to Bush administration officials and their allies who’re arguing for military strikes on targets in Iran.

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For months, the administration has accused elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — a group that supports Hezbollah — of arming and training anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq.

The White House and the State Department on Friday were quick to blame the violence in Lebanon on Iran and Syria, Hezbollah’s principal patrons.

"Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring fellow citizens, undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state," Rice said in a statement.

Other U.S. officials, however, said they had no solid evidence that either Iran or Syria was behind this week’s events.

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