BEIRUT, Lebanon — Unchallenged by Lebanon's army, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah routed Sunnis loyal to the U.S.-allied government and seized control of large swaths of Beirut's Muslim sector Friday in a telling demonstration of its military prowess.
The Shiite fighters' success in three days of street fighting significantly strengthened the hand of the Hezbollah-led opposition in the bitter political struggle with pro-Western factions over who will guide the country.
But Hezbollah leaders signaled they weren't looking for a bloody showdown by pulling back their fighters late in the day. The group, and gunmen from allied groups, also steered clear of government buildings and made no attempt to advance toward Beirut's Christian area.
The Western-backed government, which holds only a small majority in Parliament, and opposition parties led by Hezbollah have been deadlocked for 17 months over the government's course.
Sporadic street clashes had broken out the past year, but combat erupted this week after the Cabinet sought to rein in Hezbollah by ordering the removal of an airport security chief with ties to the group and demanding the dismantling of the movement's private phone network.
The quick humiliation of Sunni fighters — who are far less organized than Hezbollah's militia — showed the Shiite group is more than strong enough to prevent actions it opposes.
At least 15 people were reported killed since Wednesday — the worst sectarian bloodshed since the civil war.