BEIRUT — For a year, the main Lebanese political faction backed by the United States built a Sunni Muslim militia here under the guise of private security companies, Lebanese security experts and officials said.
The fighters, aligned with Saad Hariri's Future movement, were trained and armed to counter the heavily armed Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and protect their turf in a potential military confrontation.
But in a single night late last week, the curious experiment in private-sector warfare crumbled.
Attacked by Hezbollah, the Future movement fighters quickly fled Beirut or gave up their weapons. Afterward, some of the fighters said they felt betrayed by their political patrons, who failed to give them the means to protect themselves while official security forces stood aside and let Hezbollah destroy them.
"We are prepared to fight for a few hours but not more," said one of the Sunni fighters in the waning moments of the battle. "Where do we get ammunition and weapons from? We are blocked. The roads are blocked. Even Saad Hariri has left us to face our fate alone."
The head of a conventional private security firm in Beirut, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Sunni force was "not really ready."
"You can't just spend millions of dollars to build an army in one year," he said. "They have to be motivated and believe in something. They have to be willing to die."
Lebanon's U.S.-backed government and the Iranian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah have been mired in a political stalemate for more than a year. The country has been without a president since November.
Amid the political crisis that has sharpened differences among various religious communities, Lebanon's army and Internal Security Forces had played a peacekeeping role, preventing clashes without confronting any of the different armed groups. They feared any robust intervention would break the unity of the armed forces and plunge the country into civil war.
But the crisis has created a power vacuum. Hariri's deputies have denied his movement was building a militia, though ranking military officials, independent analysts and employees of the security firm, called Secure Plus, say it was doing just that.
Private security firms are the latest arrivals to a hodgepodge of armed groups that include Islamic militants inspired by Al Qaeda, Palestinian militias based in the country's dozen refugee camps and Hezbollah.
With speed that surprised observers, Hezbolllah last week took over West Beirut and crushed the Future movement's fighters.
Hezbollah said its move was aimed at stopping the government, which had outlawed the militant group's private communication system, from hampering its ability to confront Israel. But it appears the Shiite militia's main targets were the Future fighters, some of them operating under the guise of Secure Plus.
For months, Lebanese security officials in the army and the Internal Security Forces warily watched the growth of the Future-Secure Plus fighting force. Officials close to and inside Hezbollah said they were monitoring the growth of the potential threat.
Over the last year, Secure Plus went from a small security company to an organization with 3,000 employees and unofficial associates on the payroll, mostly poor Sunnis from the country's north. Some were armed with pistols and assault rifles.
"We have . . . thousands of young people in plainclothes working with us all over the country," a company official said before the clashes started.
Even those who feared the development hoped the Future movement's growing military capacity would create a "balance of terror" with the more heavily armed Shiite fighters, government officials and members of the group say.
"On the one side, Hezbollah has trained military groups allied with it," said a high-ranking official with the Internal Security Forces, which has received $60 million in training and equipment from the U.S.
"On the other side, the Future movement has created security firms to protect itself."
Secure Plus declined multiple requests for interviews. It was the largest of dozens of security firms that have sprung up in recent years. Run by retired Lebanese army officers, it ostensibly provides security for banks, hotels and offices. Hariri's media office denied there were any official links between Secure Plus and the Future movement.
"Future bloc has members of parliament, not fighters," said Hani Hammoud, a spokesman for Hariri. It "believes in the rule of law, and that it is up to official security and military agencies to resolve any problem that might arise."
Secure Plus employees, in beige pants and maroon shirts, were drilled for months in basic military training, including hand-to-hand combat. At least two dozen informal offices were opened in Beirut.