KASMIYEH, Lebanon—The Lebanese army deployed in southern Lebanon Thursday for the first time in 36 years as the fractured country's central government tried to reassert authority in the face of Hezbollah's growing clout.
A few thousand lightly armed Lebanese troops crossed the Litani River into the war-ravaged south shortly after sunrise, the first of 15,000 expected to arrive by the weekend. Their role is expected to be largely cosmetic: Under a compromise with Hezbollah, the army won't disarm Hezbollah fighters or search for their weapons.
In televised speeches Thursday, two of Lebanon's prominent political leaders criticized Hezbollah's refusal to hand over its huge cache of weapons and urged the powerful Shiite Muslim militant group to cede military authority to the central government.
Saad Hariri, son of slain Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, praised "the heroic fighters of the resistance" but added that the time has come for the state to assume full authority over Lebanon.
"We are facing a destroyed country, and the Lebanese will not allow anyone to make the state the weakest part of the national equation," said Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who leads Lebanon's largest parliamentary bloc, the diverse, anti-Syrian group known as the March 14 forces.
Veteran politician Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze sect, said Hezbollah had undermined the government by failing to consult it before abducting two Israeli soldiers in the July 12 cross-border raid that triggered the conflict.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and other March 14 leaders appear increasingly worried that Hezbollah, with funding from Iran, is consolidating its influence over Lebanon's large Shiite minority by moving quickly to rebuild devastated areas.
While the government has focused on political issues such as the dispute over disarmament, Hezbollah representatives have fanned out across the south and in Beirut's hard-hit southern suburbs to assess damage.
In a victory speech after Monday's cease-fire, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged to provide a year's rent for anyone who lost a home in the conflict. Lebanese news media hailed his words as "statesmanlike" and "presidential."
Jumblatt and Nasrallah had traded thinly veiled barbs during the fighting, but Jumblatt addressed his rival directly Thursday. He accused Hezbollah of acting as "a tool for the Iran-Syria axis on Lebanese land" and he warned Nasrallah that regaining the government's trust wouldn't be easy.
"Now you have a great name in the nation. You are a symbol now," Jumblatt said. "From afar it's easy for those people to hold your portrait. But from near, my country has been destroyed and burned."
The remarks seemed to be addressed as much to Hezbollah's patrons, Syria and Iran, as to Nasrallah.
Syrian President Bashar Assad reveled this week in Hezbollah's resilient performance against Israel, saying Lebanon's governing majority "will soon be swept from power."
The decision to deploy the army was intended as a show of strength by the government. It's expected to patrol the south with an expanded, 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force.
On Thursday the Israeli military said it had begun transferring control of some Lebanese territory to the existing U.N. force of 2,000 soldiers. But Israel has said it won't withdraw from Lebanon completely until the larger U.N. force arrives.
It remained unclear when that would be. France, the country that's widely expected to lead the mission, said Thursday that it initially would provide just 200 troops, reflecting widespread concern that the force's rules of engagement are unclear.
For now, the fragile peace in south Lebanon hinges on Hezbollah fighters keeping a low profile and Lebanese troops acting only when confronted with illegal activity.
At 6:45 a.m. Thursday, the first Lebanese soldiers crossed the Litani into Kasmiyeh, passing over a temporary bridge of corrugated steel and wood. Troops were stuffed in the backs of trucks or sitting atop a mountain of plastic chairs, sleeping bags and rusting lockers.
Later, nine tanks were unloaded from a military ship in the port of Tyre. The troops took up positions in towns and villages throughout the south.
"This is a historic day," said Mohamed Chatah, a senior adviser to Saniora. "This is the first time the army has gone to that part of the country with arms and as the sole military authority."
Chatah said the troops would focus on peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.
"The army is not going there to engage in war," Chatah said. "We are not talking about heavy cannons being moved there to fight someone."
The deployment was a first step in fulfilling the cease-fire resolution, Chatah said. Other key issues, such as the settlement of the disputed Shebaa Farms area and a prisoner-exchange deal, will soon follow.
As the troops drove through southern mountain towns, it was impossible not to compare the force—with its meager budget and Soviet-era tanks—with the Iranian-funded fighting machine of Hezbollah.
The Lebanese army had watched from the sidelines throughout the monthlong conflict with Israel, and on Thursday army convoys passed through areas flattened by Israeli air strikes that now flew banners praising Hezbollah.
From their ravaged villages, residents greeted the troops with some misgivings.
"The army is our sons, and when our sons walk up you are happy," said Mustapha Saad, who heard the clanking of tanks as he sipped tea at his home in the village of Qlaile. "But the army is not armed enough. We wish the army could protect our border, but it is impossible because the Israeli army is stronger."
Saad and his family had been angered by an image they'd seen on TV last week—of Lebanese soldiers drinking tea with the Israeli soldiers who'd taken over their base in the town of Marjayoun.
No Lebanese fighter should take tea with the enemy, Saad said, punching his fist into his hand.
There were other signs Thursday that the four-day-old cease-fire was holding. The first commercial flight since the conflict landed at Beirut's international airport, and Lebanese officials said full commercial air traffic would resume next week.
A naval blockade that had choked the country appeared to be easing despite no formal announcement from Israel. Three ships carrying gasoline and fuel oil arrived, allaying fears of a fuel crisis.
(Fadel reported from Kasmiyeh; Allam and Bengali reported from Beirut.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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