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Lebanese army no match for Israel, experts say

WASHINGTON—If Israel launches a massive offensive into southern Lebanon against Hezbollah guerrillas, Lebanon's small army, if it decides to fight, will be overpowered, analysts say.

While Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr has virtually ruled out joining forces with the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, he has stated that his army would resist an Israeli invasion and defend Lebanese soil.

"The Lebanese armed forces would get routed, and there's no chance that the Lebanese army would take control of southern Lebanon," said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "They're too weak. That's why they've never taken on Hezbollah. They've never had the firepower to take on Hezbollah."

Formed at the end of World War II, the Lebanese army split along sectarian lines at the outset of the country's civil war in 1975 and was only reunited in 1990 from the various factions that had previously fought one another.

According to "Middle East Military Balance," an annual publication from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel, the Lebanese army has about 60,000 men. The country also has a small air force and an even smaller navy.

The army is split along five regional commands, with 11 mechanized infantry brigades, plus artillery, special forces, commando, logistics and medical units. It has about 350 tanks and 1,100 armored personnel carriers, most dating from Soviet-era and the Vietnam war. Its artillery consists of around 175 towed guns and howitzers ranging from 105 mm to 155 mm.

Those weapons would prove no match against modern Israeli tanks, artillery and other weapons, many of which are supplied by the United States and all of which are virtually state of the art.

When Israel invaded in 1982, the Lebanese army stood by as Israeli forces routed Palestinian fighters under Yasser Arafat and forced them from the country. After Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, Lebanon failed to deploy its army along the border with Israel and essentially gave Hezbollah free rein to build up its own forces.

Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a recent article that Israel's strategy in the current fighting seems to be to weaken Hezbollah while forcing the Lebanese government and its army to secure its southern border.

If so, the results will likely be "just as strategically self-destructive" as Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

"Going too far turned a victory against the Palestinians into permanent Shiite hostility and gave birth to Hezbollah," Cordesman wrote.

How to strengthen the Lebanese army is expected to be discussed early next week in Rome at a meeting of officials from Lebanon, moderate Arab countries, the United States and Europe.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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