The Israeli-funded militia known as the South Lebanon Army reaffirmed its independence of the Lebanese government Wednesday but indicated that if Syrian dominance of Beirut ever ends, the militia will consider dealing with the central government.
The commander of the South Lebanon Army, Maj. Gen. Antoine Lahad, declared that he has no intention of taking orders from the newly strengthened Beirut government of President Elias Hrawi until it shows that it is free of Syrian control.
"If the Syrian-directed government proves it acts freely, then we may make contact," he said.
The South Lebanon Army, despite the vicissitudes in the Middle East, is maintaining "very good" relations with the Israeli military, Lahad said at a rare news conference at his French-built, buff-colored headquarters atop a ridgeline north of this strategic city in South Lebanon.
The relationship between the SLA and the Israel Defense Forces is based on common interests, the slightly built, French-trained general stressed.
"Israel is interested in the peace and security of northern Israel," the 61-year-old Lahad said in a hoarse voice in his Spartan second-floor office overlooking the ruins of the nearby Beaufort Castle, a Crusades-era structure that was the scene of fierce fighting in the 1982 Israeli invasion.
"That security depends to a great extent on peace and stability in southern Lebanon. From our point of view, we, too, are interested in peace and security, and we need the help of Israel."
The Christian-led South Lebanon Army was originally formed with massive Israeli support in 1975. It was put under the command of Maj. Saad Haddad, a renegade from the Lebanese army who cleaned out a buffer zone along the Israeli border, protecting Lebanese Christians in a mainly Shiite Muslim area. Israel calls the area its "security zone."
When Haddad died in 1984, Lahad, then deputy chief of staff of the regular Lebanese army and a Christian, replaced him. He has since built up his "army" to a strength of 2,700, formed in two brigades of three battalions each.
The militia serves as the main security force for 200,000 inhabitants in an area of more than 500 square miles, stretching from the Mediterranean to Mt. Hermon on the Syrian border. The security zone is from two to 12 miles deep; it also includes the separate Christian enclave around the town of Jezzine to the north.
Israeli military sources say 55% of the locals within the zone are Shiites, 30% Christians and the rest Druze or Sunni Muslims. The South Lebanon Army is 50% Christian--a statistic that has led to its being accused of having an anti-Muslim bias.
North of the buffer zone in Lebanon are regions hostile to the SLA, occupied by the Shiite militia Amal, the Iranian-supported Hezbollah and various Palestinian groups based in refugee camps near the coast.
Lahad said that since the recent truce between Amal and Hezbollah, incidents of violence within the security zone have risen but are "nothing to be worried about--for the time being."
He said the SLA opposes the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but that the 10,000 Palestinians just north of the security zone support Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's action.
"If Saddam Hussein loses, the Palestinian position will be weakened all through the Arab world," he said.
Lahad was wounded by a female terrorist attacker two years ago and now rides in an armored Mercedes-Benz limousine with inch-thick bulletproof windows.
Although he and Israeli liaison officers insist that there are "very few" Israeli soldiers assigned to the SLA--only a handful of trainers--many Israeli troops are evident on roads in the area and at Lahad's headquarters.
In fact, a sign at the entrance to the base declares: "Welcome to SLA-IDF Headquarters in the Security Zone."