The Lebanese government has nearly doubled the size of its security forces in recent months by adding about 11,000 mostly Sunni Muslim and Christian troops, and has armed them with weapons and vehicles donated by the United Arab Emirates, a Sunni state.
The dramatic increase in Interior Ministry troops, including the creation of a controversial intelligence unit and the expansion of a commando force, is meant to counter the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah, its Shiite ally in Lebanon, Cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat said in an interview this week.
The quiet, speedy buildup indicates that Lebanon's anti-Syria ruling majority, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, has been bracing for armed sectarian conflict since the withdrawal of Syrian forces in the spring of 2005. It also reflects growing tensions across the region between U.S.-allied Sunni Muslims who hold power in most Arab nations and the increasingly influential Shiite-ruled Iran and Hezbollah.
Over the last week, government officials have moved about 8,000 troops -- 5,000 from the army and 3,000 from the newly expanded Internal Security Forces, or ISF -- into Beirut in preparation for a massive Hezbollah-led demonstration set to begin today, Fatfat said.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has summoned his followers to the capital, and has urged them to stay in the streets until the government collapses.
About a month ago, the new ISF troops were given weapons and equipment donated by the United Arab Emirates, a confederation of Sunni states in the Persian Gulf, said Fatfat, who brokered the deal while serving as interior minister.
Some critics in Lebanon worry that the force could get involved in militia-style fighting in the event of street violence.
Fatfat spoke this week from the prime minister's headquarters, where he and other Cabinet ministers have been staying and working under guard. With talk of civil war, the pro-Western ministers fear for their lives.
"In Lebanon, it is dangerous to make politics," Fatfat said. "When I went into politics in 1991, I ... took out an American life insurance policy. But now it is more serious." He said Hezbollah and its allies were "trying to make a coup d'etat."
Even with its expansion, the ISF is inferior to Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, analysts say. But the ISF is the only Lebanese armed force devoted to protecting the Sunni-led coalition struggling to maintain political control, analysts say.
The mixed-sect Lebanese army, which has at least 60,000 ground troops, is overseen by Christians, but is thought to have no strong political allegiances. Nasrallah, who has declared Fatfat and the rest of the government illegitimate tools of U.S. interests, controls a heavily armed Shiite militia.
The role of the United Arab Emirates in the expansion of the ISF illustrates the broader implications of the tensions in Lebanon between Sunnis, with Christian and Druze allies, and Shiite Hezbollah, which has close ties to Iran and Syria.
"All of the Arab governments ... are afraid of the big strength of Iran in all the Middle East," Fatfat said. "In Lebanon, it seems we are an arena between Syria and Israel, but there's a new role for Iran."
The U.S.-led toppling of Iraq's Sunni-dominated regime, along with the growing power and ambition of Shiite-led Iran, has fed tensions between Islam's two major sects, analysts say.
Sunnis around the region, especially the U.S.-backed governments of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, have grown increasingly fearful of Shiite power. That animosity has seeped into Lebanon, especially since the strong military performance of Hezbollah against Israel this summer.
The U.S. this year refused to give weapons to Lebanon's Interior Ministry, Fatfat said. But the Bush administration is friendly with the United Arab Emirates, and the arming of anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon are considered to be in Washington's interests.
"Part of the U.S. strategy there is predicated on building the capability of Lebanese forces," said Dan Byman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University and a former Middle East analyst at the CIA.
He said the U.S. government would like Lebanon to be capable of defeating Hezbollah if need be, "which right now is not the reality."
Until Syria was forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon last year, the Interior Ministry was run by Suleiman Franjieh, a Christian with lifelong ties to the government in Damascus.
At the time, about 13,000 ISF troops were stationed in Beirut. Most had no guns. About a quarter were Shiites, said Amin Hoteit, a military analyst and retired Shiite general in the Lebanese army.
Under de facto Syrian control, the Interior Ministry didn't have enough money to arm its troops, who were marginalized in the face of a powerful Syrian-run Lebanese army, Fatfat said.
That changed shortly after Syria withdrew from Lebanon, when Siniora's government, heady with anti-Syria and independence slogans, swept to power in national elections. The Interior Ministry was taken over by pro-Western Sunnis. A flurry of recruitment rapidly grew the ranks of the ISF to 24,000 troops.
"The Shiites are very upset. They don't understand why there's this new intelligence agency and they're not represented in it," said Timur Goksel, a military analyst and longtime United Nations negotiator.
Although Lebanon had three intelligence agencies, the slaying of lawmaker Gibran Tueni, a Damascus critic, last December convinced the government that it needed an anti-Syria intelligence group, Fatfat said.
The effort was led by Saad Hariri, head of the parliament's majority bloc and communal leader of the Sunni sect. Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed last year in a bombing blamed on Syria.
The move to equip the intelligence agency and to install surveillance cameras on the streets of Beirut met resistance from Hezbollah and Amal, the two Shiite parties, Fatfat said. He acknowledged that Sunnis and Christians made up most of the ISF, which also has a large contingent of Shiites. He denied any deliberate sectarian shift.
The popular perception is that the ISF is an armed Sunni and Christian wing and a supporter of Siniora's government. On the street and among some analysts, there is a conviction that Siniora, Hariri and Fatfat developed the ISF to protect Sunni interests in Lebanon.
"There is no trust of the [ISF] here; they are seen as a sectarian Sunni force," Goksel said. "Not just the Shiites say it, but the Christians too: that it's to make up for the lack of a Sunni militia."
With Hezbollah pledging to drive the government out of office, there is growing trepidation among many Lebanese over whether the ISF will take part in street fighting.
There are also worries about what the ISF would do in a civil war. Lebanon has a history of armed forces dividing along sectarian lines, or devolving into militias, during religious strife.
"The ISF is now perceived as a threat by the Shiites," said Patrick Haenni, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Gen. Michel Aoun, a former military commander who has formed a political alliance with Hezbollah, has spoken out against the ISF, calling it a militia.
Although he is arguably Lebanon's most popular Christian leader, Aoun has been branded a traitor by rival Christians for teaming up with Shiites.
This week, Aoun accused the ISF's intelligence unit of passing out illicit licenses for weapons. He also accused the security forces of failing to quell street violence and of instigating riots.
"We tell the minister: Don't put your militia in the street and there will be no riots," he said in a recent speech.
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Lebanon, racked by civil war for more than 15 years beginning in the mid-1970s, is again embroiled in a crisis over who should govern the country.
Hezbollah, the country's most powerful Shiite Muslim party, which has some Christian allies, is seeking to force out the ruling bloc that includes other Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druze.
The loose coalition of anti-Syria politicians won control of Lebanon's parliament last year in the first election since Damascus withdrew its forces after many years of de facto domination over its neighbor.
Hezbollah claims the government is beholden to U.S. and European interests.
Source: Los Angeles Times