"No one can justify what is happening in our capital. To apologize to you, brothers, for what has happened, I tender to you and to Beirut the resignation of the national unity government, which has been shattered by conflict among brothers."
With those words, Rashid Karami, 63, one of Lebanon's most durable politicians, explained in a radio broadcast last week his decision to resign as Prime Minister of Lebanon. His crisis-torn government had lasted only a year and had been unable lo make any progress toward national reconciliation. Its passing, only a few days after the tenth anniversary of the start of Lebanon's bitter civil war, came as Muslim factions battled for control of West Beirut. Karami's resignation was perhaps the clearest sign yet that the country is rapidly disintegrating under the weight of sectarian rivalries.
The week's violent clashes sowed further hatred in already divided communities and spread death and destruction through a city long ravaged by conflict. Said a senior Western diplomat: "We are watching the slow death of a country, which no one seems able to arrest."
The clashes involved militia members of Amal, the Shi'ite Muslim organization, in league with the fighting arm of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, against the Murabitun, the Sunni Muslim militia. After 18 hours of violence, described by Karami, a Sunni, as a "colossally dangerous event," the Shi'ite and Druze forces controlled most of West Beirut.
Late in the week, Karami flew to Damascus to discuss the situation with Syrian President Hafez Assad. The Syrian leader reportedly asked him to stay in his job, presumably fearing that a government's fall at this precarious time in Beirut could lead at long last into the irreversible fragmentation, or cantonization, of the country. Back in Beirut, Karami agreed to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.
Syria assumed the role of Lebanon's godfather after the collapse of U.S. mediation efforts early last year. But even as Assad voiced his dismay at the deteriorating situation, many Sunnis accused the Syrian leader of encouraging the latest clashes to thwart efforts by Palestinians loyal to Palestine Liberation Organization Leader Yasser Arafat to re-establish themselves in Beirut; the Murabitun have long had ties with Fatah, the main Palestinian guerrilla organization. Although Syria keeps 40,000 troops in Lebanon, it appeared reluctant to descend on Beirut. Said one U.S. diplomat: "It is a big dilemma for them. They have got a big investment there, but they have also learned in the last ten years that no outsider can govern Lebanon."
The latest round of fighting started at dusk following an attempt by the Murabitun to open a new office in West Beirut. That brought the militia into direct conflict with the Shi'ite Amal, which since last February has claimed control over the area. In the latest clashes, Amal and its Druze allies successfully defended their territory and forced the Murabitun to go underground once again. Crowed a young Amal militiaman: "We crushed them, we crushed them forever."