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As army deploys, Hezbollah remains

Lebanon tacitly accepts militia's presence in south

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon -- For the first time in a generation, Lebanese troops, tanks, and armored vehicles deployed in force yesterday into the country's south as part of a UN cease-fire that ended fighting between Israel and Hezbollah fighters. But the deployment appeared to reflect the complicated reality of the Shi'ite Muslim militia's determined presence in southern Lebanon.

After dawn, scores of troops moved down the Bekaa Valley along the Syria border and across makeshift bridges over the Litani River into the Christian town of Marjayoun and through the seaside city of Tyre. There were occasional scenes of joy, but across much of the south, the deployment was a relatively sedate affair, as the extent of the damage became apparent in southern towns like Bint Jbail, Aitaroun, and Khiam, and as tens of thousands of refugees continued to return home along jammed roads.

At one point, a funeral for two Hezbollah fighters stopped a military convoy for a half-hour in Jawaya, near Tyre. On the road to Marjayoun, decorated with posters celebrating the resistance, military trucks mingled with cars flying yellow Hezbollah flags.

``The resistance has to stay here," said Khalil Taraf, a 55-year-old resident of the Shi'ite town of Dibin near Marjayoun. ``Who would protect us from aggression?" He added, ``Both need to protect us -- the army and the resistance."

The deployment followed a government decision Wednesday to send army troops south of the Litani River, which bisects southern Lebanon. The decision itself was potentially momentous: The Lebanese state had surrendered some of its sovereignty over the south in 1969, when a weak government agreed to allow Palestinian guerrillas to launch attacks against Israel. By 1976, at the start of the civil war, the government's authority in the south disintegrated, as militias began to consolidate their control over the rugged, hilly terrain.

But in recognition of Hezbollah's stature following the cease-fire, the government said that its soldiers would not act against Hezbollah's guerrillas nor would they try to disarm them. That arrangement effectively continues the relationship that existed before the conflict, between Hezbollah's fighters in the south and what was then a token presence of the Lebanese army. Hezbollah accepted the army's deployment and its officials said the fighters would assume the role they played before the fighting: rarely seen with arms in the open, often melting into the population.

The United Nations said about 1,300 Lebanese troops had arrived in the south by day's end yesterday.

Israeli officers met with UN military officials and Lebanese Army officers to plan their departure from Lebanese territory. A senior Israeli officer said about 8,000 Israeli troops remain in Lebanon, from a high in the conflict of 15,000 to 20,000.

Israeli soldiers watched as the Lebanese Army came south of the Litani and plan to turn over more positions today, the officer said. He said Israel expects the Lebanese Army and UN soldiers to curb the militia, despite the tacit Lebanese acceptance of Hezbollah's presence on the ground.

Those forces should ``take steps to prevent Hezbollah from rebuilding itself. I want them to control the borders, especially between Lebanon and Syria, to prevent weapons from coming in," he said.

Israel has said it is ready to leave Lebanon as soon as Lebanese and international forces arrive. In southern Lebanon, few spoke out against the deployment; many seemed to feel it was a welcome gesture by a state that has often neglected the poorer south. In Marjayoun, one woman threw rose petals and rice at the trucks parked near her restaurant.

``Forty years!" cried the 51-year-old woman, Salma Shahin. ``We've had to live through war for 40 years."

``We don't want to see bullets from any party other than the state, other than government of Lebanon," she said, pointing to a window cracked by two bullets. ``We've had enough. I want to see the army from the furthest north to the furthest south."

More than 30 military truck and troop transports and a dozen outdated armored personnel carriers forded the Litani underneath the Kardaly Bridge, which was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. They passed along a pile of sand bulldozed over metal pipes that let the river pass. On the other side of the Litani, they passed under an arch flying four Hezbollah flags and an equal number of Lebanese flags. Along the side was a banner that read, ``Written with blood, resistance."

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