BEIRUT -- Emboldened by this summer's war with Israel, the radical Islamist Hezbollah party has gone on the political offensive inside Lebanon, determined either to replace or to bring down the pro-American government.
Political leaders in Hezbollah, Lebanon's main Shi'ite Muslim movement, say the Shi'ites have proved that they command far more popular support than is reflected in their share of government posts under Lebanon's delicate power-sharing arrangement. That system, adopted under a deal that ended the nation's deadly civil war in 1990, divides power among the country's main sectarian groups -- Shi'ites, Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Christians.
Now, Hezbollah and an allied Christian political party led by General Michel Aoun are demanding a government reshuffle that would give them more positions -- and would in effect give Hezbollah veto power over any legislation. They have threatened to boycott the government or try to bring it down through strikes and street demonstrations if they don't get more posts.
Hezbollah's demand threatens a sectarian power-sharing arrangement that has averted civil war for 15 years, doling out positions of power to different groups without regard to their real share of voter support. Any challenge to that system would cause some sects to lose power and could unleash a new round of the bloodshed that gripped Lebanon from 1975 to 1990.
US officials, the Lebanese government, and Israel say that by gaining veto power, Hezbollah would paralyze the government, extend Syrian influence over Lebanon, and ruin Lebanon's prospects to rebuild. And if Hezbollah -- which the United States lists as a terrorist group -- were to expand its share of government power, the United States could find itself unable to work with the Lebanese authorities, since it boycotts all Hezbollah officials.
But Hezbollah officials say the country already is in a crisis, with the pro-Hezbollah Shi'ites and their allies delaying the prime minister from filling key positions for years. They contend that pro-Western political minorities who together represent less than half the population control a veto-proof supermajority of government power under the 1990 accord that ended the civil war.
Hezbollah says it will wield political tools -- such as withdrawing from the government, along with public demonstrations and strikes -- to prolong the crisis until the government accedes to its wishes.
"We are prepared to use all means short of civil war," said Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah representative in parliament.
Hezbollah has spent years building support in the southern villages and poor suburbs where the Shi'ite population lives. The movement maintains that Lebanon's Shi'ite population, now approaching nearly 50 percent, has grown faster than others, warranting a greater share of power than Shi'ites got under the 1990 deal.
Hezbollah has two ministers in the Lebanese government and more than a tenth of the seats in parliament. The prime minister's post is reserved for Sunnis and the presidency for the Christians.
Two months after a war that left Lebanon's infrastructure in shambles and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, Hezbollah's leadership wants to cash in on a conflict that it sees as a political and military victory.
"On a domestic level, after the war, Hezbollah became stronger and stronger," said sociologist Ali Fayyad, director of a Hezbollah think tank that produces many of the party's policy papers.
First, Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah militarily. Then, the popularity of Hezbollah's charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, soared in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, as he became an icon for currents of Islamist, anti-Israeli, anti-Western, and Arab nationalist sentiment.
Despite the heavy casualties and displacement, Shi'ites continued to fervently support Hezbollah. A month after the war, Nasrallah staged a "victory" rally in Beirut, drawing as many as 1 million supporters in a show of strength not lost on Hezbollah's political rivals inside Lebanon.
Fayyad said that Hezbollah's military performance during the war made it politically impossible to resume internal discussions about disarming the group, which had been a key goal of the Lebanese government and its foreign backers, including the United States and France.
It's an assessment shared by government officials who as recently as June were pushing Hezbollah to put down its arms as the rest of Lebanon's political parties did when the civil war ended.
Now, acting Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat says, no politician can claim Lebanon doesn't need Hezbollah's armed resistance -- even those members of the government like himself who believe only the Lebanese state should have an army.
Fatfat is at the center of the first direct postwar clash between Hezbollah and the government. His ministry's Internal Security Forces, a kind of police commando unit, fatally shot a Shi'ite demonstrator in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut on Oct. 6. The government was trying to crack down on illegal construction in the Shi'ite suburb.
But the outcry that followed stoked a power struggle between the government and Hezbollah, with members of the Shi'ite group demanding that government police leave their part of the city.
"It was definitely a challenge to the authority of the police," Fatfat said. His security forces withdrew briefly, but within days of the skirmish, they were patrolling in the Shi'ite suburbs again, fully armed.
Fatfat said Hezbollah is trying to seize on its postwar prestige and mobilize popular anger among its supporters "to see what they can gain in internal politics."
"This kind of discourse is very dangerous, because it's based on pressure from the street," he said.
Hezbollah has managed to keep the support of the other major Shi'ite political organization, Amal, and has found a surprising Christian ally, Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement.
The Christian leader and retired army general has rallied his followers in the capital with an outpouring of anger at the government, which includes ministers from much smaller and less popular Christian political parties than Aoun's.
Aoun, a sworn enemy of Syria, and Nasrallah, whose movement openly accepts Syria's military and financial support, formed an unusual political union in February. Both leaders believe Lebanon's electoral rules unfairly depress their share of power in the national government, and both rail against government corruption and nepotism.
Just a year ago, Aoun was a loud proponent of disarming Hezbollah. But now, shut out of power by the ruling coalition, he has accorded broader legitimacy to Hezbollah by giving it a cross-sectarian base, in exchange for Shi'ite support for his November 2007 presidential bid.
The government, Aoun said in an interview, has "bankrupted the country, and runs it like a mafia."
"They are puppets," Aoun said. "They cannot resist popular pressure and strikes, because they aren't supported by the people."
An increasingly weak and isolated government has reacted defensively to the Hezbollah-Aoun offensive. Saad Hariri, the son of slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, heads the government's parliamentary bloc and is the unofficial leader of the government forces. After a war that he didn't want, he has been reduced to praising Hezbollah's "resistance" and describing the battle in southern Lebanon as a "victory."
Hariri, a Sunni, invited mayors from Shi'ite towns in the south to a recent Ramadan breakfast at his palatial Beirut mansion, to woo some of the Shi'ite politicians to support the government. In response to a small-town mayor at the breakfast who asked worriedly about the prospects for renewed civil war, Hariri called on young hotheads to "calm down."
"I don't want this country to fracture," Hariri said.
Like many in the government, Hariri said the solution lies in resuming the "National Dialogue," a series of meetings among all political factions to resolve thorny issues, including a new voting law and the question of how to disarm Hezbollah. That process had deadlocked when war broke out July 12, and Hezbollah officials dismiss the prospects for a new dialogue until their demand for more power is met.
"If we want to block the government, we could block it now," said Nawar El Sahili, a Hezbollah representative in parliament. "We insist we must change this government peacefully. We prefer not to go to the ground and have demonstrations. In the end, we may be obliged to go to the street. Peacefully, of course."