SINCE 1759

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Radical Politics
Mideast Democracy: One Violent Group Finds It Works Fine
Joining Lebanese Government Helps Hezbollah to Resist U.S. Demands to Disarm; Firing Rockets Into Israel, Too

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- When Syrian troops left Lebanon last year, the Bush administration saw a prime opportunity to de-fang a group one U.S. diplomat once called the "A-Team" of terror groups: Hezbollah, which receives major backing from Syria.

The end of Syria's nearly three-decade occupation was a watershed moment for President Bush's campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East as an antidote to violent Islamic movements. Millions of Lebanese celebrated the country's liberation. With an election approaching, Hezbollah was worried. "We felt danger," says Nawar Saheli, a political leader in the group.

Today, it's stronger than ever. The group, once disdainful of domestic politics, filled the power vacuum of Syria's departure by joining Lebanon's governing coalition. That has given Hezbollah new clout, including control over two ministries.

It also has helped the group elude a big threat: international pressure, led by the U.S. and France, to disarm. Over the past year "Hezbollah built a big shield over its military wing," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University.

How the militant group turned adversity to opportunity reveals a conundrum for the Bush administration: Rather than resisting Washington's democracy drive, some radical Islamic groups, including organizations the U.S. deems terrorist, are using it to promote their agendas.

In the Palestinian territories, the Sunni Muslim group Hamas won elections that were encouraged by the U.S. in January, taking control of the government. Like the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, Hamas has resisted international pressure to renounce violence and disarm. In Iraq, the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whom U.S. officials once called a terrorist and vowed to capture or kill, has become an important behind-the-scenes player in the new Iraqi government. His "Mahdi Army" flourishes with little challenge from the U.S. or Iraqi officials.

Though Washington has generally supported these democratization moves, letting militant groups enter politics without giving up their weapons carries big risks. An example is Gaza, thrown into crisis by the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas's armed wing. Israel responded by blowing up a major electricity grid, arresting dozens of Hamas lawmakers and cabinet ministers and launching a ground offensive that has killed more than 30 Palestinians.

Israel also threatened Syrian President Bashar Assad, who permits senior Hamas leaders to reside in Damascus, by flying warplanes over one of his palaces, raising the prospect of a wider confrontation. And, worried that Hezbollah's armed wing might attack too, the Israeli military has issued a high-level alert along its northern border with Lebanon.

Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God, has an especially thorny history with the U.S. and Israel, and it presents unique problems. The group emerged in the early 1980s to oppose Israel's occupation of part of Lebanon, during a phase of the long Lebanese civil war. Hezbollah has slowly developed a vast network that provides social services far more efficiently than the Lebanese government in many areas. But the U.S. lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization because of a series of bombings, kidnappings and airplane hijackings it carried out in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Amid tension over Iran's nuclear facilities, Hezbollah also draws scrutiny because it has close ties to Iran. Hezbollah has an estimated 15,000 missiles pointed at Israel from land it controls in southern Lebanon. Some U.S. and Israeli officials worry that if there ever were a military confrontation between the West and Iran, Hezbollah could become a proxy for Iran and step up attacks on Israel. In such an event, Israel would almost surely reply with overwhelming force, potentially inflaming passions in the Middle East and raising the danger of region-wide war.

The risk was underscored in late May as Israel and Hezbollah had their most ferocious skirmish in years. Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel and hit a military base. Israel destroyed several dozen Hezbollah forts, killing at least one adherent. "Hezbollah is a big nightmare for us," says an Israeli military commander, Lt. Col. Ishai Efroni.

Despite Hezbollah's maneuvering, U.S. officials describe events in Lebanon as progress toward the goal of spreading democracy. They say bringing Hezbollah into mainstream politics will gradually cause the group to distance itself from Iran and focus its energies on domestic issues, a process they argue will eventually lead to Hezbollah's disarmament.

In the meantime, they say the U.S. will continue to support international efforts to disarm the group, underscored by a series of tough United Nations Security Council resolutions. "The fact that there is even discussion about Hezbollah's disarmament is progress," says Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. ambassador to Beirut.

With its location along the Mediterranean between Syria and Israel, Lebanon has long been a focus of regional conflict. A land of more than a dozen Christian and Muslim sects, it erupted in a brutal civil war in 1975. A 1989 accord that formally ended the war specified a government reserving key positions for each main group. Lebanon's prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim.

What drew Hezbollah into its higher profile in politics was the February 2005 bomb slaying of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who'd become publicly critical of Syria's military occupation. Many Lebanese suspected Syria's government of involvement in the killing, and a popular uprising ensued. When Syria capitulated and withdrew its troops, many hoped the move would free the Lebanese to decide their own affairs.

In some ways, that's just what happened. More than ever before, Hezbollah turned the goodwill engendered by its social-services work into political might.

After Syria withdrew, Hezbollah leaders asked Mr. Saheli and 11 others to run for seats in Lebanon's 128-member Parliament. Under the banner of Hezbollah's political party, Loyalty to the Resistance, they won easily. Hezbollah's top leader, Hassan Nasrallah, also became more active on the national stage.

Together they reshaped Lebanon's political agenda with a mixture of bare-knuckle politics and occasional compromise. The top priority, says Mr. Saheli, was derailing the international effort to force Hezbollah to disarm. That effort was embodied two years ago in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which among other things demanded that all Lebanese militias turn in their weapons.

Mr. Saheli, 39, grew up in Hermel, a drab city of 100,000 on the northern edge of the Bekaa Valley, near the border with Syria. A Hezbollah supporter since his teens, he'd become a lawyer and member of his town's city council.

The number of seats Hezbollah could win in Parliament was limited by Lebanon's complex power-sharing formula. Even so, Mr. Saheli sensed the value of producing a big voter turnout for Hezbollah. The group's campaign efforts in effect turned the voting into a referendum on whether it should be able to keep its armed military wing.

During the three-week campaign, Mr. Saheli says, he visited up to 15 villages a day. Skipping other issues such as education, he hammered a single theme: Protect "the resistance," Hezbollah's term for its military wing. Often, he says, he ended speeches with a harangue against the U.S. "The Americans have a big project against the Arab world -- Iraq, now Syria and next Hezbollah. And we must resist."

Voters, especially in Shiite-dominated areas, loved it. When the results came in June 2005, Hezbollah and a few parties it had aligned with were huge winners, taking the maximum 35 parliamentary seats available to Shiite Muslims.

Though Hezbollah had fielded candidates in previous elections, it had always remained an opposition party. This time, Mr. Saheli and his bloc accepted an invitation to join a coalition government. They asked for two important ministries, energy and labor.

And they made another demand: that all major government decisions, including the question of Hezbollah's weapons, be decided through consensual agreement rather than by a straight vote of the cabinet ministers. Coalition partners -- the biggest was Future Movement, led by a son of the slain Mr. Hariri -- needed Shiite representation in their government, and agreed to the conditions. That gave Hezbollah the power to veto just about anything it opposed.

Hezbollah legislators pushed through approval for a $35 million drinking-water facility, a waste-disposal project of similar cost and a $68 million road project, all in the Shiite-heavy Bekaa Valley. On a recent afternoon, workers were laying asphalt on the new highway under a blazing sun. It will improve access to some elaborate Roman temple ruins, boosting tourism and jobs, Mr. Saheli says.

At a cabinet meeting in December, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a staunch critic of Syria, asked ministers to vote, without a debate, on a proposal to set up an international court to try people arrested for Mr. Hariri's murder. Hezbollah's two ministers, accusing Mr. Siniora of breaking his promise to make all decisions consensually, walked out.

When three ministers from another Shiite party followed this lead, the new government faced paralysis. The Hezbollah ministers set a tough condition for their return: a public statement from the Sunni prime minister calling Hezbollah's military wing a "resistance" movement rather than a "militia."

It's a key distinction. U.N. Resolution 1559 calls on all Lebanese militias to disarm. Mr. Siniora stood before Parliament a few weeks later and said his government would henceforth refer to Hezbollah only as a resistance movement.

Though Hezbollah's politicians had been victorious, the showdown left the organization wary. It now activated a fallback plan: an unlikely alliance with a former Lebanese general and Christian leader, Michel Aoun.

Tensions between Hezbollah and Lebanon's Christians have run deep ever since some Christian factions worked with the Israelis during the civil war. Mr. Aoun lived in exile for 15 years before returning to Lebanon last year. He was an outspoken foe of Syria's occupation and also advocated disarming Hezbollah. In exile, the 71-year-old ex-general also met with officials in the U.S. and France in an effort to create an international front against Hezbollah.

Those efforts stopped on Feb. 6, when Mr. Aoun and Hezbollah suddenly made a deal. It amounted to a simple trade-off: Mr. Aoun suspended his call to disarm Hezbollah, and the group agreed to support him as a future Lebanese president.

Mr. Aoun says he still believes Hezbollah will disarm someday. But he now calls this an "internal matter" for Lebanon and offers no timetable. "The U.S. isn't too happy with me anymore," he notes.

Mr. Saheli, asked about Mr. Aoun, says: "We have common interests."

Hezbollah still has vocal critics. Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze religious sect, says, "We need to squeeze Hezbollah, put them in a corner." He blames the group for "paralyzing" the government. But he doesn't favor trying to disarm through force. "We don't want a civil war," he says.

Amid growing political and economic strain, there are new signs of sectarian tension in this land of so many different religious factions. Last month, a fight broke out between knife-wielding Druze and Shiite students at a university campus. A few days later, thousands of Shiite residents in Beirut rioted after a TV show mocked Mr. Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader. Lebanese security forces moved to Christian neighborhoods to avert further trouble.

In his parliamentary office on a recent day, Mr. Saheli said sectarian strife is a big concern. But he maintained that this longstanding problem, as well as the issue of Hezbollah's arms, must be resolved through democracy and national dialogue.

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