BEIRUT, Lebanon—Hezbollah's huge cache of short- and long-range weapons loomed large Tuesday over the tenuous truce between the militant Islamic group and Israel as Lebanese officials grappled with what to do with the militia's arsenal.
Lebanese officials said they have largely dismissed the idea of disarming Hezbollah, which is now more popular than ever among the country's large Shiite Muslim population.
Instead, they spent Tuesday in tense discussions with Hezbollah representatives over how to allow the group's fighters to keep their weapons while ceding military authority in southern Lebanon to 15,000 Lebanese troops and a still-unformed United Nations peacekeeping force.
Lebanese officials made it clear that no Lebanese troops would be sent to southern Lebanon until a compromise is reached.
"The army won't be deployed to south Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah—something Israel wasn't able to do itself," Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr said on Lebanese television.
Without an agreement on what to do with Hezbollah's weapons, which include thousands of anti-tank rockets and uncounted numbers of long- and medium-range missiles, the deployment of an international peacekeeping force also was likely to be delayed.
France is expected to lead the force, and several countries, including Spain, Indonesia, Turkey and Italy, were considering sending troops. But nothing was official yet, and new troops weren't expected until late next week at the earliest.
Disarming Hezbollah was a key goal of the Israeli campaign in Lebanon, and U.S. officials have said the Lebanese government is required to disarm the group under previous U.N. resolutions.
But the resolution that established the current cease-fire, which went into effect Monday, doesn't specifically call for the disarmament of Hezbollah. It also doesn't say how U.N. peacekeepers and the Lebanese army are to control the area in the face of an armed Hezbollah that has exercised unchallenged military authority since Israel withdrew from Lebanon six years ago after a difficult 18-year occupation.
The confusion, said Timor Goksel, a former official with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, is one reason that countries have been reluctant to contribute forces.
"Everybody wants to know what is the exact mission; nobody is happy with this wishy-washy U.N. mandate," said Goksel, who now teaches at the American University in Beirut.
Still, Israeli troops continued to trickle out of southern Lebanon on Tuesday and prepared to hand over territory to 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers who were already in Lebanon under an old agreement that ended fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces in Lebanon in 1978.
Israeli officials declined to say how many of their troops remained in Lebanon and how many had left. But convoys of transport trucks arrived at the border to take loads of armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles south, and journalists saw Israeli troops removing artillery batteries—concrete indications that Israel is winding down its Lebanese presence.
Meanwhile, Lebanese residents were flooding back into the area at the rate of 6,000 an hour, the government said.
Among them were many young men who were clearly Hezbollah fighters who'd resurfaced as civilians. Where they'd left their weapons wasn't immediately clear.
Thanks to assistance from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah is believed to have amassed what experts have called the world's best guerrilla arsenal.
Before hostilities with Israel began July 12, Hezbollah was believed to have possessed as many as 12,000 short-range Katyusha rockets. In nearly five weeks of fighting, Hezbollah fired more than 3,500 Katyushas into northern Israel while Israeli forces destroyed about 1,000 on the ground.
Hezbollah also has up to 120 Iranian-supplied Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 rockets, with ranges of 22 miles and 45 miles, respectively, which it used sparingly during the war.
Israeli soldiers also discovered that Hezbollah had acquired vast quantities of Russian-made wire-guided anti-tank missiles, which its fighters used effectively to attack Israeli troops.
Lebanese officials have discussed disarming Hezbollah before. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government raised the subject after Syria ended its occupation of Lebanon last year.
But Hezbollah refused, saying the Lebanese army was too weak to repel an Israeli attack. The most recent conflict only bolsters that position.
"After this war their argument is stronger," said Wasic Qansoe, a columnist for al-Hayat newspaper. "They say we have proof that we can defend Lebanon, that our arms really hurt the Israelis—so why are you asking us to disarm now?"
On Monday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed victory over Israel and said it was the wrong time to discuss handing over weapons.
The divisions over arms came into focus over the weekend, before the cease-fire, when a Lebanese Cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday to prepare for Lebanese army deployment was postponed. Hezbollah officials said they wouldn't discuss disarmament while fighting was ongoing.
Since Sunday, Lebanese officials have been meeting behind closed doors with parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite Muslim who's been negotiating for Hezbollah. Officials said a compromise could be reached as early as Wednesday.
One Cabinet member with knowledge of the discussion said that the government might agree, as an interim step, to allow Hezbollah to keep weapons in southern Lebanon as long as they were out of view, weren't used and didn't threaten the army's hold on security.
"The minimum position of the army is that there should be no visible arms," said the official, who discussed the negotiations on the condition of anonymity. "If they are not visible, they are not visible. If they don't know where they are, they won't search for them."
Publicly, Mohamed Shatah, senior adviser to Saniora, said the government was considering asking Hezbollah to transport their weapons north of the Litani River or hand some of them over to the army.
The government's policy calls for the "melting away" of Hezbollah's armed wing, Shatah said, while its extensive political and social work in the south would continue.
In the south, where yellow Hezbollah flags waved as residents returned, many residents insisted that Hezbollah would never lay down its weapons, even as they stared at the rubble of their homes in devastated border villages like Ayta Al-Shaab.
"Before Hezbollah existed, the Israeli soldiers came to shoot us and bomb us," said Mohammed Srour, 55. "Hezbollah defended us. What can the Lebanese army do?"
But in the same village, in a flower shop reduced to shambles, Itas Awati had a different view. "What is winning? This destruction?" she asked.
Her husband, Moussa Mansour, was ready to say goodbye to an armed Hezbollah. "I want the Lebanese army to come here and be strong so no one can come here," he said. "No militia and no Israelis."
(Contributing to this report was Leila Fadel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Ayta Al-Shaab, Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald in Jerusalem and Dion Nissenbaum in Kiryat Shemona, Israel.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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