BEIRUT, Lebanon—For most Americans, the standoff between the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and Lebanon's government may look like inside politics in a country that's barely big enough to contain its name on most world maps.
But Hezbollah's two-week-old siege of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's administration is, in many ways, a test of U.S. power and credibility in the Middle East at a time when the Bush administration is struggling to regain the offensive in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Analysts, Lebanese leaders and Western diplomats agree that the crisis is an outgrowth of a developing showdown between the United States, which backs Saniora, and Syria and Iran, which support Hezbollah.
"Because Lebanon doesn't count in anybody's equation, it is the perfect place to use it as a cold war arena; there is a cold war in the Middle East now," said Timur Goksel, who was a longtime senior adviser to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon until 2003. "I think Hezbollah is being drawn into this cold war ... they are taking sides."
That cold war can be seen across the region. In Iraq, Syria and Iran are helping forces aligned against U.S. troops. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran has pledged millions to help the Hamas-led Palestinian government—which the United States and Europe have cut off—and Syria continues to support Hamas and several Palestinian terrorist groups.
The fight is complex: The United States wants to stop the tide of Iranian Shiite power from destabilizing oil-rich Sunni Arab countries with significant Shiite populations, such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The government of Saudi Arabia, in particular, has grown anxious about the ascent of Iranian influence in the region.
At the same time, however, American officials are seeking ways to curb the violence in Iraq by bolstering the Iranian-backed Shiite government there, which U.S.-sponsored popular elections brought to power.
As the United States has been pushed and pulled by the region's problems, what some U.S. officials believed was an invincible American empire has begun to look weaker to some in the Middle East.
Top Hezbollah officials have made no secret of thinking that America is stretched too thin to stop them.
"What can America offer you?" Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said via video link to a huge crowd of demonstrators last week in Beirut. "It is sinking in the mud of Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine."
A Western diplomat based in Beirut said Hezbollah officials had made their intentions clear by constantly pairing Saniora with U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman in their speeches.
"Why are they using this rhetoric of saying, `The Feltman government'? Why are they saying Saniora's a U.S. agent?" said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It's because they want to be able to deliver the United States a strategic defeat in Lebanon. Because they see the problems in Afghanistan, they see the problems in Iraq, they see no progress in Palestine and they want to be able to play the defeat of the Saniora government ... as a defeat of the United States."
Hezbollah leaders counter that the United States, facing setbacks in Iraq, is seeking to use Lebanon as a base from which to shape Middle East politics.
"Their main enemy in Lebanon is Hezbollah. They want to get rid of Hezbollah and use it (Lebanon) as a bridge to other goals," Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Rahal said. "They want to begin in Lebanon, then Palestine, then Syria and then Iran."
Another Western official, who also asked not to be identified, conceded that "what has happened in the region is not exactly as we envisioned it; I think it underscores the importance that Lebanon survives as a democratic state."
Hezbollah assertions that Saniora is a U.S. puppet are incorrect, the official said.
"That coming from the force that is on the payroll of Iran, that receives a large amount of arms from Iran, that's just laughable," the official said. "It's a cheap emotional trick to paint this as a fight against American hegemony."
Many Lebanese Sunnis and Christians say that Hezbollah and the Saniora government are being disingenuous when they accuse the other side of being too closely tied to foreign powers.
"In our view, both of them are tied to outside political axes of some sort," said Osman Bakhach, a spokesman for the Liberation Party, a fundamentalist Sunni political group that calls for establishing an Islamic caliphate and opposes the United States and Hezbollah.
Emil Moukarzel, a spokesman for the Lebanese Forces, agreed. His organization, which is one of the main Christian groups in Lebanon and played a major role as a militia in the country's 1975-90 civil war, is pro-Western but has tried to remain outside the current conflict.
"The major war here is between the United States and Iran," he said.
Hezbollah and its allies began massing demonstrators in front of the main government building on Dec.1. They demanded that Saniora either give Hezbollah enough Cabinet seats to dissolve the government, or scrap the government immediately and begin anew, presumably with Hezbollah and its allies at the fore. The crowds outside the government center have ebbed and flowed, but they've never numbered fewer than tens of thousands.
Hezbollah officials said they'd summoned the demonstrators after concluding that Saniora had sided with the United States during last summer's Israeli military campaign—which devastated Shiite villages in south Lebanon—and watching while the prime minister pushed for a tribunal that the militant group believed would target Syria, one of its main backers.
"We cannot leave this government to lead the country to this fate, of following the Americans," said Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah member who resigned from the Saniora Cabinet last month along with five other militia members and allies. "The main issue is the Americans want to keep this government in power because they can control them."
The Western diplomat in Beirut said that for the Bush White House, Lebanon had acquired the image "of the heroic democratic country" in a way reminiscent of how the Reagan White House viewed "captive nations" such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
"It became impossible for anyone to suggest that we should be just accepting their incorporation into the Soviet empire," the diplomat said. "Lebanon has almost become like that."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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