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Syria's exit may mean more power for Hezbollah in Lebanon

BAALBEK, Lebanon—If Syrian forces leave Lebanon in the face of growing international and Lebanese pressure, the Islamic militant group Hezbollah—entrenched in this Bekaa Valley hamlet and across much of eastern and southern Lebanon—is ready to fill the military and political vacuum.

Should it succeed, the anti-Syrian democratic protests that have attracted so much international attention since opposition leader Rafik Hariri was assassinated Feb. 14 could prove stillborn. Instead of clearing the way for pro-Western democrats, Syria's withdrawal could bring to the fore a virulently anti-Western political force believed to be responsible for attacks on U.S. Marines and the American Embassy in Beirut and for kidnapping dozens of foreigners.

Uncertainty may rule the streets of Beirut after dueling protests for and against Syrian involvement in Lebanon's affairs, but loyalties are crystal-clear in this town built around Roman ruins 6 miles east of the Syrian border.

Hezbollah's green and yellow flags flutter along its streets. Taped to nearly every shop window and plastered across intervening concrete walls, the face of Hezbollah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah broods at passers-by, as it does throughout Lebanon's predominantly Shiite Muslim east and south.

Syria, whose forces have dominated Lebanon for the last three decades, is closely aligned with Nasrallah's movement and has readied it to take Syria's place as Lebanon's dominant power.

"The Syrians are trying to leave behind a system they can control. A pillar of that will be Hezbollah," said Michael Young, the opinion editor of Lebanon's English-language newspaper Daily Star.

The price could be further divisions in Lebanon. Young and others said that Syria, through its many agents and supporters in Lebanon, would move to lift the political restrictions that distribute power to religiously based factions according to an unwritten 1943 agreement that today leaves Lebanon's Shiite plurality underrepresented. That would net Hezbollah more parliamentary seats in May elections.

It's also likely to make Hezbollah a newly partisan player in a nation still smarting from 15 years of civil war that ended in1990.

"For 10 to 15 years no one has dared to say much against Hezbollah," Young said. "That is changing because now they (Hezbollah) are using their muscle; they want to be Syria's enforcers."

If the Syrians make good on their promises to withdraw to or beyond their border, Baalbek residents are confident that Hezbollah can take charge.

"Disarming Hezbollah"—as the West has called for—"is not an option, especially when we have Israel, our enemy, on our border," said Naji Awada, 28, who owns a cellular-phone store in Baalbek. "The weapons of the resistance are for the security of our country, to hold a knife to Israel's side. The army doesn't have the necessary knowledge to do that."

Backed by Syria and by the Shiite-run government of Iran, Hezbollah is under fire from the United States and its Western allies for periodic attacks on northern Israel and its support for Palestinian militant groups.

During Lebanon's civil war, Hezbollah was blamed for attacking and kidnapping Westerners, including the truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, which killed 241 Marines, and the murders of CIA Lebanon chief of station William Buckley, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem and U.S. Army Col. William Higgins.

Hezbollah's ties to Iran are visible on its office walls, which feature framed photographs of the Islamic Republic's founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iranian arms are still delivered to Hezbollah via Syria, even as the group has become more self-sufficient in a Shiite population whose faith demands that they give part of their income to clerics. In the Bekaa Valley this week, for example, a half-dozen Hezbollah activists set up a donation stop along the Beirut-Damascus highway, collecting money from drivers.

Hezbollah has matured from a guerrilla group during the civil war to a military and political powerhouse, patrolling the southern Lebanese skies with robot aircraft and representing the country's largest religious group, with 12 seats in the Parliament.

Community involvement may be the secret to Hezbollah's popular appeal. Hezbollah-funded hospitals and schools serve thousands of poor and underemployed Lebanese in the Shiite-dominated south and east.

In Baalbek, Mohammed Yezbek, 47, shrugged when he was asked why he had pictures of Nasrallah in his fabric shop and not slain former Prime Minister Hariri, whose posters have adorned buildings across Beirut since his assassination. "He never came to Baalbek in 12 years," during his terms as prime minister, Yezbek said.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, is active every day in Baalbek. Residents say the Islamic group holds a 70 percent share of power in town, including the mayor's seat. Few here appear to want a clerical government, and despite its power Hezbollah hasn't imposed one, residents said.

In fact, Hezbollah activists help run Baalbek's annual classical music festival, which draws thousand of Lebanese and foreign tourists to the world-famous Roman ruins here each year. The hotels serve alcohol—taboo for Muslims—and many women walk the streets without the Islamic veil.

Hezbollah also provides security by patrolling the country's southern border with Israel. Lebanon's army mans a few checkpoints and little else.

Hezbollah forces attained legendary status on the border after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew his soldiers from southern Lebanon under fire in May 2000. Hezbollah's anti-Israeli stance resonates where the memory of 22 years of Israeli occupation is still fresh.

Israel's fighter jets still crack the sound barrier over Lebanese airspace and Israeli forces attack Hezbollah and Syrian outposts from time to time when the militant group fires Katyusha rockets or antiaircraft guns at Israeli targets.

Many Lebanese think that Hezbollah, commonly known as "the resistance," and its guerrilla tactics—rather than the army—are better suited to fighting their southern neighbor.

Hezbollah also has captured anti-American sentiment brought on by the U.S. presence in Lebanon during its civil war and more recent Bush administration policies in the Middle East.

Now the group has its eye on the general elections in May.

"We are not with the opposition and we're not part of the government," said Hezbollah Parliament member Mohammad Raad, 49.

Its policies include preserving Syrian-Lebanese ties, keeping Hezbollah armed and rejecting the assimilation of Palestinian refugees, which might lessen their claims to a right to return to their homes in what's now Israel.

"Otherwise, Lebanon could become part of a greater American project for the Middle East," Raad said.

Nasrallah used Tuesday's rally to put the opposition on notice that it can't win the popular battle for change without Hezbollah. One in eight Lebanese turned out for the rally, according to some crowd estimates, seven times as many people as even the biggest of the highly publicized anti-Syrian demonstrations that have captured world attention drew during the past three weeks.

Lebanon's opposition leaders are worried about Hezbollah's power and have been careful not to lash out at the group, even after Nasrallah lashed out at them. Some opposition leaders openly object to the idea of disarming Hezbollah.

Hezbollah rallies planned for Friday in the northern city of Tripoli and the southern city of Nabatiya probably will only heighten the fear of the group's ascent.

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050307 Hezbollah

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