BEIRUT, Lebanon — Nearly a year after claiming "divine victory" in the brief and vicious war it fought against Israel, the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah has fallen short of its ambition to collapse the U.S.-allied Lebanese government and install its own veto-wielding political axis.
Hezbollah still draws much of the regional acclaim it garnered as the first Arab army to fight Israel to a draw. Yet things aren't rosy at home.
Reconstruction of Hezbollah's battered strongholds is achingly slow. The presence of Lebanese and international troops in the heart of Hezbollah's southern territory has hampered its armed wing's efforts to restock its arsenal. The party increasingly is divided between relatively moderate members and more hard-line factions with close ties to Iran.
Even the Iraq war is bedeviling the group: Hopes that Hezbollah could bridge sectarian divisions to become the national emblem of resistance have fallen victim to Sunni-Shiite Muslim tensions worsened by the civil strife nearby.
"The fact that Hezbollah kept fighting until the very end was an achievement, and we need to give them credit for that," said Hilal Khashan, a Hezbollah expert at the American University of Beirut. "But after the end of the war, they were unable to cash in politically for that steadfastness. They were hoping to get some dividends for their performance. They did not."
Hezbollah's willingness to discuss its performance over the last year has suffered as a result. McClatchy Newspapers contacted a dozen Hezbollah strategists, politicians and militants but none agreed to speak on the record, citing a recently imposed ban on unauthorized interviews. Other journalists reported similar silence.
Privately, the Hezbollah members said the leadership remained focused on twin goals: building a national unity government in Lebanon and preparing for the next showdown with Israel.
Independent observers offered a more nuanced assessment that portrayed the party as struggling to meet its goals, however. Hezbollah's rise to regional prominence began a year ago this past Thursday, when its fighters crossed the Israeli border and captured two Jewish soldiers — who have yet to be freed — in hopes of using them as bargaining tools for the release of Arab prisoners.
Israel responded with airstrikes that killed some 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and laid waste to the nation's infrastructure, but didn't stop Hezbollah from firing thousands of rockets into Israel, killing at least 39 civilians. The conflict ended when a United Nations-brokered cease-fire took effect Aug. 14, with Hezbollah still battling Israeli troops in the south.
At the time, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah attempted to portray his self-proclaimed victory as a win for all Lebanese, but that notion never really took root here. Most leaders of Lebanon's Christian, Sunni and Druze communities viewed Nasrallah's newfound regional popularity as a threat and began closing ranks to block further Hezbollah gains.
The latest Lebanese conflict — an ongoing battle between the army and Sunni extremists at a Palestinian refugee camp in the north — has deepened the tensions and added a jihadist wild card to the mix.
"The problem is that society and politics are so deeply polarized now that no matter what (Nasrallah) or Hezbollah have been trying to do in terms of mending fences with their rivals — the Sunnis and so on — it has not worked because of very high levels of sectarianism," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst who monitors the group. "There was a clear conspiracy to weaken Hezbollah before the war, during the war and after the war."
On the political front, Hezbollah's effort to oust the anti-Syrian government controlled by Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora remains stymied. The United States and the European Union — as well as influential Sunni Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — have thrown their support behind Saniora amid concerns that a rapid spread of Iranian influence is threatening the regional balance of power.
Nine months ago, Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies — including Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, the Shiite movement Amal and the sizable constituency led by Christian leader Michel Aoun — set up a massive encampment just outside the government complex in downtown Beirut to pressure Saniora to give in.
Today, however, the camp is largely empty of all but the most fervent opposition supporters.
"Hezbollah is stuck now that they've seen this government is not going to fall," said Patrick Haenni, a Beirut-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that works to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts. "If the choices are (civil war) and not securing the resistance politically, it's better to do nothing at all."
On the military front, analysts say, Hezbollah has had a tough time rearming and fortifying its garrisons along the Lebanese-Israeli border, where, in accordance with the cease-fire agreement, the U.N. has stationed 11,500 troops and the Lebanese army, 15,000.
With more than 100 checkpoints in the area, the peacekeepers "numerous times have come across weapons, bunkers and ammunition" that belong to Hezbollah, said Milos Struger, the U.N. force's spokesman. While the international troops aren't authorized to conduct house-to-house searches, they can seize weapons when they find them.
Hezbollah has been more successful rebuilding north of the Litani River and in the eastern Bekaa Valley — areas outside the U.N.'s mandate — where light weapons reportedly continue to flow across the border from Syria.
A prominent Lebanese academic who isn't affiliated with Hezbollah but maintains a close professional relationship with guerrilla leaders said he'd toured a new Hezbollah bunker in the Bekaa Valley four months ago. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution over discussing sensitive information.
The scholar said the hideout had been carved into a mountain face near Baalbek and was nearly 1,000 feet deep. He said his Hezbollah guides had boasted of even deeper installations.
"It was very well lit, very well ventilated and there were little side rooms" about every 10 meters or so," the scholar said. "They were still unpacking boxes and moving in."
On civilian rebuilding projects, progress is much slower and is complicated by political wrangling. Even among rural southern Shiites, who regard Hezbollah as the only party to fight for their rights in government and protect them from Israeli incursions, there's resentment that entire neighborhoods remain mere rubble.
Hezbollah's contractors have carted tons of debris from Beirut's southern suburbs, but gaping holes and teetering buildings still dot large swaths of the area. Apparently having given up on rebuilding, some residents have moved back into devastated towers, where their laundry hangs from charred balconies. On the ground floor of one building, a snack shop is doing brisk business, even as the structure's upper levels seem ready to collapse.
Many families said cash payments from Hezbollah remained the only assistance they'd seen in the past year, a contention the Lebanese government rebuts by saying that many Shiite families are pressured to deny that they've received outside help or not to criticize Hezbollah's compensation campaign.
Hanan Awdeh, a 35-year-old housewife and mother whose apartment in southern Beirut was flattened last summer, said that when push came to shove, it was Hezbollah that took care of her family.
Awdeh used a $10,000 cash payment from the group to lease a new apartment and furnish it with a sofa, armchairs and end tables. She said Hezbollah activists had dropped by one day bearing gifts from Iran: a choice of small, medium or large carpets and a new set of kitchenware.
"I expected that Hezbollah and Iran would take care of us, just as I expected the government to abandon us, which they did," Awdeh said. "In the end, though, none of it is enough. Rebuilding depends on the political situation, and now the situation is not good at all."