Hezbollah Flexes Its Muscle and Gains a Greater Stake in the Government
Tension in Lebanon peaked in February 2008, after the assassination of top Hezbollah military commander, Imad Mugniyah. He was killed in a car bombing in Damascus, Syria. Mugniyah is thought to have orchestrated a series of bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s and 1990s, and he was one of America's most wanted men with a price tag of $25 million on his head. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who accused Israel of arranging the assassination, called for an "open war" against Israel.
Sectarian violence between Hezbollah, a Shiite militia, and Sunnis broke out in May. Fighting began when the government said it was shutting down a telecommunications network run by Hezbollah, calling it illegal, and attempted to dismiss a Hezbollah-backed head of airport security. Members of Hezbollah took control of large swaths of western Beirut, forced a government-supported television station off the air, and burned the offices of a newspaper loyal to the government. The government accused Hezbollah of staging an "armed coup." After a week of violence, in which 65 people died, the government rescinded its plans concerning both the telecommunications network and the head of airport security. In return, Hezbollah agreed to dismantle roadblocks that had paralyzed Beirut's airport. The government concessions were seen as a major victory for Hezbollah.
After several days of negotiations, Hezbollah and the government reached a deal that had Hezbollah withdrawing from Beirut. In return, the government agreed that Parliament would vote to elect as president Gen. Michel Suleiman, the commander of Lebanon’s army; form a new cabinet, giving Hezbollah and other members of the opposition veto power; and pursue passage of a new electoral law. Parliament went ahead and elected Suleiman as president. He's considered a neutral figure, and his election ended 18 months of political gridlock. Prime Minister Siniora formed a 30-member cabinet in July, with the opposition holding 11 positions.
Lebanon and Israel took part in a prisoner exchange in July. Israel released five Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Kuntar, who killed an Israeli policeman, a man, and his young daughter in 1979. Lebanon, in turn, returned to Israel the bodies of two soldiers who were captured in the 2006 cross-border raid into Israel.
Suleiman met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in October 2008, and the two agreed that Lebanon and Syria would establish full diplomatic relations—for the first time since both countries gained independence from France in 1943.