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Cracks begin to appear in support for Hezbollah

AYTA AL SHAAB, Lebanon—Hussein Rahmeh was standing with a group of friends in a pharmacy in this Hezbollah-controlled town when he uttered a string of words that brought the room to a standstill.

"If Hezbollah can't give us money to fix our homes, then people will begin to turn against them," he said, his voice lowered. Like thousands of others across southern Lebanon, Rahmeh lost his house last summer when Israel's campaign against the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah turned his neighborhood into a maze of crumpled buildings, charred cars and large craters.

The men around him sucked in their breath. One of Rahmeh's friends, Mohammed, broke the silence. "You cannot say these things," he said.

Hezbollah remains in firm control of southern Lebanon and enjoys overwhelming popularity here. The streets outside the pharmacy are plastered with posters bearing the faces of men killed in the name of Hezbollah—"The Party of God"—and recounting the sayings and proverbs of leader Hassan Nasrallah.

But fissures are beginning to creep across that support as winter comes, with crops destroyed, jobs scarce and the wreckage of war still unrepaired.

On the outskirts of Bint Jbail, a town that was pounded by Israeli artillery and bombs, an elderly man recently pushed a wheelbarrow full of branches and plywood scraps through the rubble. The neighborhood still has no electricity; he'll burn the wood for heat, he said.

"Hezbollah gave me $900 to rebuild, but it's going to cost me $10,000 to repair the entire house," said the man, who gave his name as Abdul Kareem. "Hezbollah sent consultants here, but so far they have done nothing."

Ali al Amine, a prominent Shiite cleric in the southern town of Tyre and longtime Hezbollah critic, said such comments are becoming more frequent.

"There is no doubt that the party most responsible for the destruction is Israel, but there are some who say this war wasn't necessary at all, that Lebanon wasn't ready for this war, that even Hezbollah wasn't ready for this war," he said. "The people are beginning to ask a lot of questions."

Some politicians and analysts said those questions may be part of the reason Hezbollah is pressing to overthrow, or substantially weaken, the central government in Beirut: to demonstrate strength to the party faithful.

"People are saying OK, it was a tremendous military performance, but at the end of the day, it was the Shiites who suffered," said Timor Goksel, a former senior adviser to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and an expert on Hezbollah. "By taking a very strong stand, it is a message to its own internal constituency that they are the winners."

Since early December, Hezbollah has rallied tens of thousands of its supporters outside the downtown Beirut offices of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. The militia has promised that the demonstrators will stay until Saniora agrees to its demand for enough Cabinet positions to have the option of disbanding the government at a moment's notice.

U.S. officials have decried the standoff as a Syrian-backed effort to derail a U.N. investigation into the bombing death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The probe has implicated Syrian officials. American officials also said it's part of a plan by Iran, which too backs Hezbollah, to challenge the United States in the region.

Some analysts, though, consider the confrontation more as an outgrowth of an internal Lebanese debate about the future of Hezbollah.

At the core of that debate is a key question: With Israel gone from much of southern Lebanon and with talks of the remaining occupied land being handed over to the United Nations, what is the role of a group formed as "resistance" against Israeli forces in Lebanon?

Another key issue for Hezbollah is how it reacts to the 18,000 new Lebanese and U.N. troops in southern Lebanon who hadn't been there before last summer. Already there are signs that the new troops are crimping, however slightly, Hezbollah's autonomy: A U.N. official said those forces have uncovered and confiscated 20 Hezbollah weapons caches since August.

"Some in Hezbollah, unfortunately, seem to be locked into this view of defining themselves as a force in the south that faces the Israelis in a battle of rockets and guns," said Mohammed Chatah, a senior adviser to Saniora, whose government is pushing Hezbollah to disarm, allow its fighters to join the Lebanese army and convert itself entirely into a political party.

"If you accomplish full liberation in the south ... then it's natural to have just one army and for Hezbollah to reshape itself, to refocus its efforts on other areas of public policy," Chatah said. "If we define Hezbollah only as a fighting force, then we have a serious problem."

Many Hezbollah loyalists think such a result would be tantamount to handing Israel and its U.S. backers a victory that Hezbollah denied them on the battlefield.

"The war was meant to end the resistance," said Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah leader who resigned his post in Saniora's Cabinet last month. "Hezbollah is paying more attention to the internal situation here; it has more interest now in managing Lebanese politics."

At the end of last summer's war, Hezbollah was widely declared the victor. Israeli ground troops withdrew after encountering fierce assaults by Hezbollah fighters in towns such as Ayta al Shaab. Hezbollah's opponents in the Lebanese government appeared ineffectual—unable to get the United States to stop Israel's massive bombing and incapable of rendering assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese whose homes had been destroyed.

In a paradox befitting the complexities of the Middle East, however, the war's outcome also put the militia on shakier ground.

The U.N. resolution that ended the fighting paved the way for 20,000 Lebanese and U.N. troops to flood into the region south of the Litani River—Hezbollah's traditional stronghold—where previously there were no Lebanese soldiers and only 2,000 U.N. troops.

Hezbollah remains, by far, the most capable military force in southern Lebanon. But its movements now are curtailed by U.N. and Lebanese army checkpoints, observation posts and small military bases spread across the south.

In addition to having confiscated some arms caches, which included mortar rounds and anti-tank missiles, U.N. and Lebanese troops are now so numerous that Hezbollah would find it difficult to retrieve rockets from hiding places, set up launch sites near the border and attack Israel without attracting notice, said Milos Strugar, director of political affairs for the U.N. mission in Lebanon.

"What's happening right now, for Hezbollah, is a matter of survival," said Hilal Khashan, an American University of Beirut political studies professor who has written extensively about Hezbollah. "They knew all along that Saniora's government is pro-American and wants to disarm them as a military organization. ... If Hezbollah were to disarm, they would become an indistinguishable political party."

Hezbollah officials bristle at any suggestion that their support may be waning, even slightly. "Go to the south, or here in the suburbs, and you will see that all the people are with the resistance, they are willing to suffer for the resistance," said Ghalib Abu Zaineb, a member of Hezbollah's political bureau, as he sat in his office in Beirut's Shiite suburbs.

Still, at least some have jaundiced views, with their homes in ruins four months after the fighting ended.

In Khiam, which straddles the Israeli border, a group of men crowded into a corner grocery store, rehashing the conversations that they'd had 1,000 times: America's policies have killed countless Muslims, the nation of Israel believes only in war, and Saniora is a traitor.

One of the men, who said his name was Amin Abu Abbas, looked at the crowd around him and said, "My building is completely destroyed, but I don't care if Hezbollah helps us rebuild—thank God for Hezbollah."

Abu Abbas was being serious—he was happy to sacrifice his home and the attached businesses for the sake of Hezbollah. But after he spoke, one man laughed, and then another. And, quickly, they were all laughing.

"Everyone I know had their houses destroyed; dozens and dozens of houses were destroyed," Abu Abbas said, looking wide-eyed at the laughing men around him. "But thank God for Hassan Nasrallah."

The laughter continued, but no one said another word on the matter.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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