Fri, Aug 25, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Rifts emerging over Hezbollah's role in Lebanon

STATE WITHIN A STATE A Lebanese editorialist said that Hezbollah went to war with Israel without considering what the rest of the country wanted


Only in Beirut do war scars and champagne chic blend so easily. In Achrafiye, an upmarket district of hip restaurants and nightclubs where a bottle of bubbly can cost US$1,000, a ravaged building totters over a street corner.

Bullet holes pock the walls and the windows have long disappeared. Rubbish and barbed wire clog the front door and weeds sprout from the upper floors.

The lonely ruin is what remains of the Green Line, the infamous boundary that divided Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 17-year-old civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. Until recently it was a reminder of a bitter conflict most Lebanese thought was over.

But since this summer's 34-day war with Israel, there are fears of fresh divisions within Lebanese society that could heave the country into a new era of turmoil. The new green line wobbles uncertainly around the role of Hezbollah.

As Israeli warplanes pulverized Lebanon's infrastructure and laid entire villages to waste, many Lebanese silently rallied around the fighters' resistance.

But since a ceasefire took hold 11 days ago, sectarian dissent has slowly swelled.

Druze, Sunni and some Christian leaders blame Hezbollah for provoking Israel and are demanding the group submit to the national government.

"The [political] situation has become dramatically worse since July 12," said Michael Young, an editor at the Daily Star newspaper. "The perception among non-Shia communities is that Hezbollah went to war without consulting with anyone."

Some quietly suggest Israel should have gone further to crush the militant group.

"I wish with all my heart this war had not ended," one Christian woman, who asked not to be named, said in the southern city of Tyre.

An exception is the Christian leader Michel Aoun, who has forged an alliance with Hezbollah in what he depicts as an effort to build bridges with Muslims. But this is controversial among other Christians, who say Hezbollah has let countries such as Syria and Iran use Lebanon as a battleground for their interests.

The fiercest argument centers on disarmament. Israel, the US and the UN say Hezbollah must surrender its arms to ensure peace.

"To play a patriotic role they don't need weapons," said Elias Attallah of the Democratic Left party. "An army and a resistance movement cannot live side by side. In Lebanon no community can accept domination by an-other. Otherwise it will lead to war."

Others say such demands may be incendiary.

"If the government persists in trying to disarm Hezbollah and if the US keeps pushing them, this will create sectarian tensions, a split in the army, and could very well lead to a civil war," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut.

Among its Shia supporters, at least, Hezbollah is riding a wave of popularity. In Beirut yesterday officials handed out thick wads of US dollars to war refugees whose houses had been destroyed. The funding is widely believed to come from oil-rich Iran, Hezbollah's main sponsor.

Musa Trablisi, 57, slipped US$12,000 into his pocket, the maximum under Hezbollah's compensation system. His house in Ainata near the Israeli border has been flattened, he said.

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