BEIRUT — Lebanese security forces replaced Hezbollah fighters Monday at checkpoints in Beirut’s southern suburbs in response to criticism that the group’s recently enacted security measures proved that it maintains its own mini-state in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah set up dozens of checkpoints this summer to control access to an area known as Dahiya after a series of bombings and other incidents targeted the militant group’s followers in apparent retaliation for its open support for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The checkpoints, however, served as a daily reminder that Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which maintains tens of thousands of well-trained fighters, is Lebanon’s most powerful political and military force, and they sparked repeated complaints from Sunni Muslim and Christian politicians that Hezbollah once again had bypassed the Lebanese state.
Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister, Marwan Charbel, urged residents to assist with the transition as regular Lebanese forces took over at the checkpoints.
“The residents should support the security forces, and they should not doubt their competency and capabilities,” he said on local television. “I urge the residents of Dahiya to cooperate with the security forces, who are deployed to ensure their safety.”
He shouldered the blame for Hezbollah’s having to assign its own fighters to protect the neighborhood after a massive suicide blast last month killed dozens of people just a hundred yards from key Hezbollah facilities.
“The problem in Dahiya and the phenomenon of autonomous security emerged because of our shortcomings,” he said.
One resident said she viewed the development with a mixture of relief and concern, noting the army’s reputation for being more low-key than the Hezbollah fighters.
“It’s one hour I have been here,” Um Nabil said as she waited to get to her home, which was just 200 yards away. “Every day we sit for one hour, but it will be better with the army because now we can curse them.”
Noting that Hezbollah has a reputation for discipline and efficiency that the army doesn’t share, she worried that the regular forces won’t be as effective in maintaining the neighborhood’s safety.
“The problem is that we know the Jews and Americans have people inside our army,” Um Nabil said. “Now we worry they will let terrorists in to slaughter us.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.