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Hezbollah gains as Lebanon's leaders struggle

As nation readies for truce, militia's influence grows

BEIRUT -- Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has positioned himself to be a more influential player than ever in the event of an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, taking advantage of a Lebanese government paralyzed by a complicated ethnic power-sharing system and a weak national army still reeling from decades of Syrian occupation.

In fact, as Lebanon prepares to accept a cease-fire agreement and send 15,000 of its own troops to separate Hezbollah guerrillas and the Israeli army, it's unclear whether the pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora will be able to muster the political strength and military discipline needed to make it stick.

Members of Saniora's coalition have contended that Washington left Lebanon's government vulnerable to Hezbollah by backing Israel to a fault and at the same time neglecting to provide money and military aid that would have enabled the secular government to curtail Hezbollah's growing influence.

If the Lebanese government can't forge a unified front strong enough to control its own army, rei n in a resurgent Hezbollah, and minimize Syrian and Iranian influence , members of the government worry that a cease-fire will only buy a temporary respite, leading to renewed hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah.

``Hezbollah is stronger than the Lebanese state ," said Wael Abou Faour, a member of parliament from the Druze bloc who is close to the most powerful leaders of the government. The Druze, another religious sect, represent about 10 percent of Lebanon's population and are a unified and influential political force.

The government, Abou Faour said, has found itself on the sidelines at key points in the crisis, unable to exert any control over Hezbollah, a movement whose ``goals don't coincide with the interests of Lebanon."

``We don't have anything in our hands," he said. ``They have more resources, manpower, funding. They have support from Iran and Syria."

Saniora has warmly embraced the United States and spoken in favor of the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Since the war with Israel broke out, Saniora and his ministers have asserted that Washington hung its old ally out to dry, making the government appear a feeble American client. Government ministers have publicly asserted that Iran did far more to help Hezbollah during the crisis than America did for its ally, the Lebanese government.

Lebanon's government is built on a delicate ethnic and sectarian blueprint drawn up under French colonial rule in 1943, which reserves key positions in the government and military for leaders of each group. It's called the ``confessional system," because it apportions powers to each major confession, or religious sect -- Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi'ite Muslims, and Druze. All major decisions are supposed to be made by consensus.

That system broke down on July 12, however, when Hezbollah crossed into Israeli territory and kidnapped two soldiers, touching off the current war -- a conflict that government leaders said they never would have approved.

It's not the first time the confessional system has failed; civil war raged in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, and mistrust still lingers among the country's groups.

That sense of division has only been heightened during the current crisis, with some Christians and Sunni Muslims cheering military strikes against Hezbollah, while Shi'ites have darkly warned that after the war internal critics of Hezbollah will ``face an accounting." Such friction has set the stage for a government weaker than ever to preside over a peace with Israel.

Nasrallah, the unelected head of a single movement representing Shi'ites, has been Lebanon's de facto commander in chief. His fighters move freely throughout southern Lebanon and much of Beirut, while Nasrallah has made several speeches a week outlining his military strategy and his terms for a cease-fire with Israel.

``As long as there is Israeli military movement, Israeli field aggression, and Israeli soldiers occupying our land . . . it is our natural right to confront them, fight them, and defend our land, our homes, and ourselves," Nasrallah said yesterday in an hourlong speech watched closely on televisions across Lebanon.

In contrast to the Hezbollah leader's image as a guerrilla leader in control of his movement, Saniora has appeared weak and frustrated. He has wept repeatedly during televised speeches and meetings as he has pleaded for assistance from the west and the Arab world.

Saniora yesterday welcomed the UN resolution as evidence ``that the whole world stood by Lebanon," even though he had begged for an immediate cease-fire from the first week of the conflict with no results.

Despite the quietly voiced complaints about Hezbollah from his allies, Saniora also praised Hezbollah. ``The steadfastness of the resistance fighters in the field was very important, as was the steadfastness and unity of the people," Saniora said.

The prime minister's friends in the government, like acting interior minister Ahmad Fatfat, have tried to defend the government's performance during the crisis.

The ruling coalition, dominated by an alliance of Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze, deadlocked earlier this spring in talks with Hezbollah about disarming the group, whose militia has proven far more potent than the official Lebanese military .

Fatfat, who is in charge of the relatively weak and underequipped police force, said he blamed the legacy of 20 years of Syrian control for the weak state of the central government.

Syria intentionally kept the Lebanese military and police inferior and tightly under Syrian control, while helping arm and train Hezbollah. As a result, when Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon under intense international pressure after the slaying of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, it left behind national security forces that were no match for Hezbollah's guerillas.

But Fatfat pointedly emphasized that a Lebanese-led peacekeeping force would not have the power to confront or disarm Hezbollah by force; instead, it will depend on Hezbollah's cooperation, disappointing Israeli and American diplomats who expressed the desire to see Hezbollah fully disarmed.

``This decision requires the agreement of every party, including Hezbollah, or it won't work," Fatfat said. ``This force will not combat Hezbollah."

As evidence that it can deliver after a cease-fire, the government has pointed to its diplomatic campaign and its ability to deliver basic services to its population at a time when at least one-fourth of the country's 3.8 million people have been displaced.

But much of the aid to refugees is coming from individual political parties, including Hezbollah, rather than the government. And while Saniora's allies have put forward a unified political front during the war with Israel, there's no way to know if that focus will continue once the fighting stops and the government has to find a way to defang Hezbollah.

Nizar Abdel-Kader, a former Lebanese Army general who retired in 1996 and now writes a newspaper column about military affairs, said that a new military peacekeeping mission in the south would fail unless the government showed more political backbone than it had so far.

``The national army can safeguard the country and enable the state to rise from the ashes," Abdel-Kader said. ``But as long as the government is acting like the weakest party, the army is losing its sense of purpose."

Lebanon's military has the technical capacity to provide security in southern Lebanon but couldn't survive a fight with Hezbollah, Abdel-Kader said.

Just as Hezbollah didn't consult the other political forces in Lebanon before it attacked Israel, political leaders said, Hezbollah might still chart its own potentially destabilizing course after a cease-fire.

Abou Faour, the Druze lawmaker, said he had ``very little hope" for long-term stability because he believes Iran and Syria will continue to interfere in Lebanon, and he fears America won't offer enough political and military support to bolster the fragile democratic government.

Hezbollah played to an audience in Lebanon and the Arab world that relishes any feint that makes Israel look weak, Abou Faour said. But he added that eventually Hezbollah would have to answer to Lebanese people who believe it set their nation on a self-destructive path.

``They resisted, they were brave, but the country was destroyed and will need 15 years to recover," Abou Faour said. ``It's total destruction, and one day someone will ask if any single party alone can make the decision to cause such destruction."

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