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Hezbollah backs Lebanon's pro-Syrian government, fueling tensions

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon's powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement on Sunday declared it would side with the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, a move that increases tension among the country's ethnic factions over Syrian domination.

The announcement by Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leaves the country's Shiite Muslims, who make up the largest religious group, on the opposite side of a growing independence movement. Large protests for independence have forced Syria to accept a pullback of its 15,000 troops that were left over from Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Murad told Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television that some Syrian troops would be relocated to the Syrian border region on Monday, and a final pullout must be negotiated by the two governments. Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud, were scheduled to meet in Damascus on Monday.

Most Shiites and their political leaders credit Syria with keeping Lebanese Christians from having too much control. The Shiites largely had stayed on the sidelines until Nasrallah came forward Sunday.

At a news conference, Nasrallah accused the independence movement of seeking to replace Syrian influence with that of the United States and Israel. Those are fighting words in Lebanon, where residents still hate Israel for its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

"The aim of America and Israel is to spread chaos in Lebanon and bring it back to a state of chaos," Nasrallah said.

Nasrallah called for a mass demonstration Tuesday by pro-government and Hezbollah supporters near Martyrs' Square to show how many Lebanese oppose the anti-Syrian drive. The protest is likely to be a large one. Hezbollah commands much popular support.

Hezbollah, which in Arabic means "Party of God," was established with the help of Iran's Revolutionary Guard following the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. At the time, it was a small guerrilla force linked to attacks on Western targets and hostage taking in Beirut. In the 1990s it allied with Syria, and through Syria it received weapons and funding from Iran.

The group has evolved into a dominant political and social force in Lebanon. It claims a tenth of the seats in parliament. Most Lebanese credit the movement with driving Israeli forces out of Lebanon in May 2000.

The redeployment of Syrian troops isn't likely to change the balance of power in the country. Even opposition leaders acknowledge that most Syrian forces from Lebanon's civil war days have long gone.

Power in Lebanon's government is wielded largely by Lebanese officials loyal to Assad. Syrian intelligence agents also help maintain Syria's control.

The Bush administration has demanded that Syria remove both its troops and intelligence agents before Lebanese elections in May. The White House also has demanded that Hezbollah, which the United States and other Western nations denounce as a terrorist group, be disarmed.

"The international community is not going to stand by and let Assad continue to have these kind of measures," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said on "Fox News Sunday." He said on CNN's "Late Edition" that Syrian intelligence officials in Lebanon "really keep the clamp of fear in the Lebanese people."

Domestic and international wrangling over Syrian control of Lebanon during the past three decades began in earnest last fall when the Lebanese government changed the law in order to extend the pro-Syrian Lahoud's term in office. The prime minister, Rafik Hariri, resigned in protest and became the senior opposition leader, spearheading the popular demand for a reduced Syrian influence in Lebanese affairs.

Hariri, 60, was assassinated in a Feb. 14 bomb blast that many believe was the work of pro-Syrian agents. Since then, thousands of Lebanese Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims have protested almost daily at Martyrs' Square near the parliament, calling for Lahoud and Assad to remove Syrian influence on Lebanese affairs.

Murad said Syrian troops would pull back from Mount Lebanon near Beirut and northern Lebanon toward the eastern Bekaa Valley following Assad and Lahoud's meeting in Damascus Monday.

In Baalbek, a historic town in the eastern Bekaa Valley some six miles from the Syrian border, two Syrian army bases look more like shanty towns with their single-story mud and brick huts, with plastic sheeting and tires as roofing.

On Sunday, a few dozen Syrian soldiers dressed in faded uniforms warmed themselves over fires lit in rusty oil drums. In contrast, Lebanese Army members wear crisp new camouflage uniforms and are assigned to multi-story brick buildings down the road.

Residents said the Lebanese army is stronger than Syrian forces in the country.

Power in Baalbek "has nothing to do with the Syrian army," said Lebanese Naji Awada, 28, who owns a cellular phone shop there.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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