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Hezbollah’s Balancing Act

Times Staff Writer

Along the dilapidated alleyways and tumbledown avenues of south Beirut, the scenery is a dizzying blend of the two forces that built Hezbollah into the most potent political force in this troubled country.

First there are the wizened faces of the Iranian ayatollahs plastered throughout the neighborhood. It is from Iran that Hezbollah takes much of its money, arms, religious inspiration and guidance.

But the streets are also thick with Hezbollah supporters -- the drivers of battered taxis, the women in flowing black robes. Born in Lebanon’s poorer quarters, the political party, with its militia and network of social services, remains a staunchly grass-roots operation that thrives on the zeal of its mainly Shiite Muslim followers.

The possible withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, however, has pushed Hezbollah to the brink of an identity crisis. The delicate balance between its foreign sponsors and its local popularity has been upended by Lebanon’s political turmoil. Never before has the party faced such heavy pressure to give up its guns, with calls coming both from the international community and other groups within the country.

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As talk of disarmament persists, the domestic and international demands on Hezbollah are becoming less harmonious. Guns are the key to Hezbollah’s regional role, with its Iranian- and Syrian-backed armed force on Israel’s border. Both sponsors would probably oppose any move to disarm the militia, which the U.S. government has branded a terrorist group.

But the weapons are becoming a millstone that weighs on Hezbollah’s domestic profile. The militia was celebrated for helping to drive Israeli soldiers from the south after years of occupation. But that was five years ago. Lebanese enthusiasm for Hezbollah’s arms has dropped, and Syria may not be around much longer to quell discussion of disarmament.

Amid the upheaval, perhaps no question bears greater importance to Lebanon than the future of Hezbollah.

“If you want to talk about the central player who can change the whole face of the country, that’s Hezbollah,” said Ibrahim Moussawi, director of foreign news at Al Manar, Hezbollah’s satellite television channel. “Now Hezbollah is in the middle, and everybody is trying to get Hezbollah to their side.”

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The party’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has responded to the pressure, and to Lebanon’s sudden power vacuum, by charging into the political scene. The usually cautious leader made a rare trip to downtown Beirut for Hezbollah’s mass demonstration this month, where he stood before a Lebanese flag and declared, “Long live Lebanon.”

But it is such a visible, hands-on role in Lebanese politics that the party has long shunned, fearful of smudging its reputation for incorruptibility. Hezbollah has risen to unmatched political power in Lebanon with the counterintuitive strategy of holding itself apart from the cutthroat intrigues of a widely distrusted government. The group has promoted itself as an untainted force and built schools, hospitals and orphanages and provided other services normally supplied by the government.

“I don’t think Hezbollah ever wanted to play such a large role,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of “Hezbollah: Politics and Religion” and a professor at the Lebanese American University. “It’s always distanced itself from domestic squabbles. It’s always refrained from assuming any political position in the government. It would never want to be held responsible for any mistake the government might make.”

But these are uncertain days in Lebanon, and the status quo has broken down. The government has fallen, and the Syrian domination that has persisted in this small Mediterranean country since the end of its 15-year civil war is fading, leaving political infighting and the threat of violence in its wake.

Few dispute Hezbollah’s power here. With a single call to demonstrate, Nasrallah flooded the streets with an estimated half-million people this month. The party’s 12 lawmakers form one of the largest blocs in parliament, and Hezbollah is poised to gain even greater sway in elections scheduled for the spring.

At the same time, Hezbollah has always hung back. The party never sought Cabinet positions and usually avoided getting enmeshed in votes of confidence. In short, it tried to carve out a role that was neither with the government nor the opposition.

But as a bitterly divided Lebanon works to form what could emerge as its first sovereign political system since the civil war, there is little room for the party to remain neutral. The anticipated weakening of Syria’s hold on Lebanon strips away a controlling power that protected and nurtured Hezbollah. Public anger against the Syrians is also swelling in the streets. Because Hezbollah is a well-known Syrian ally, it faces the risk of being tainted by association.

Nobody knows what the party would do if trapped between a heightened domestic pressure to relinquish its guns and its foreign sponsors’ insistence that it keep the weapons trained on Israel. Some diplomats and analysts speculate that Hezbollah might consider loosening its links abroad, entering negotiations to put aside its weapons and recasting itself as a purely political Lebanese entity.

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But other analysts dismiss hopes of disarmament as wishful thinking.

Hezbollah, they point out, could easily cling to its guns and gamble that no Lebanese force would risk civil war by coming after the militia. Hezbollah’s guerrillas are lodged firmly in the lore of Lebanon and the Arab world as freedom fighters, and its hundreds of thousands of followers are fiercely loyal.

“You’ve got a large constituency that’s extremely dedicated and ready to execute orders,” said Nizar Hamzeh, a Hezbollah expert at the American University of Beirut.

The history between America and Hezbollah is marked by blood and mistrust. The U.S. believes that the group was behind the 1983 truck bombing at a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans, among other violent acts.

But today the U.S. government appears to be contemplating what Lebanese already know: You can’t get far in Lebanon without engaging Hezbollah. In a carefully worded statement last week, President Bush appeared to hint that the United States might be willing to accept Hezbollah’s political role in Lebanon if the group agreed to put aside its guns.

“We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they’re not by laying down arms and not threatening peace,” Bush said.

Although his message was widely interpreted as a veiled overture to a longtime American nemesis, Bush’s remarks were met with anger and disbelief in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah keeps its offices. Many Shiites are firmly convinced that U.S. and U.N. pressure to oust Syria from Lebanon was always a mask that concealed the true intention: stripping Hezbollah of its arms. They claim that Israel has been the driving force behind the resolution all along.

“All of the people here believe this is a sinister plan to target Hezbollah eventually,” said Moussawi, the Al Manar newsman.

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Nasrallah replied to Bush’s overture with toughness. “I am firm in keeping our arms because I believe the resistance is the best option for defending Lebanon against Israeli threats,” the Hezbollah leader said in an interview with Al Manar. The party would keep its guns, he said, “as long as Lebanon is threatened, even if we remain threatened for a million years.”

But his response wasn’t as absolute as it sounded. Nasrallah did indicate that Hezbollah might one day be willing to discuss disarmament, but only with fellow Lebanese, not with Americans or other foreigners.

A defiant Nasrallah recently made it plain that his militias would keep their weapons even if Israel were to abandon Shebaa Farms, a disputed tract near the Israeli border whose occupation Hezbollah has used to justify its armed posture.

Party officials point out that Hezbollah prisoners remain in Israeli jails and that Israel continues to breach Lebanese airspace. Hezbollah officials say they need their guns to prevent the permanent settlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and to guard against Israeli attacks.

“When these questions are all answered, then we don’t have a problem discussing disarmament,” said Abdallah Kassir, a bespectacled Hezbollah lawmaker from the southern city of Tyre. “When we say now that we’re ready for dialogue, even on the question of disarmament, we’re reasserting that we carried weapons to liberate our land, and that cause is not over with.”


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