Hezbollah fighters have pulled back since seizing parts of Lebanon’s capital, but their brazen display has made one thing clear — a private army blamed for terrorist attacks on Western interests and dedicated to the destruction of Israel will be a fixture in this weakened country for a long time.
Lebanon is an ideal incubator for Hezbollah’s military clout, just as Afghanistan served al-Qaeda. Lebanon’s US-funded military does not interfere with the thousands of rockets and missiles that militants are believed to have hidden in basements and bunkers throughout Shiite Muslim areas of the tiny country.
Hezbollah’s refusal to discuss disarmament at talks with Lebanese factions in Qatar last week means it has formidable firepower to unleash at will. This could have wider implications, given Hezbollah’s summer war with Israel two years ago, though some Lebanese suspect Hezbollah’s main objectives include local power grabs and settling ethnic scores.
“Hezbollah’s mask has dropped,” said Ayman Kharma, a Sunni Muslim cleric whose fourth-floor apartment in the northern city of Tripoli was blasted during fighting this month with a militia allied to Hezbollah. “We were in favor of Hezbollah when it was fighting Israel. Now we see it from the inside.”
Kharma was talking about the sectarian tone of the violence, with Shiite militants from Hezbollah targeting Sunnis tied to the government. He spoke in the blackened wreckage of what was his living room, littered with fragments of rocket-propelled grenades.
Hezbollah says its chief goal is to fight Israel and its combat record — burnished by the 2006 war — has earned it respect throughout the Arab world. The attire of a Shiite fighter in the recent fighting in Lebanon testified to past and present conflicts — an Israeli helmet, green fatigues with a “US Army” stamp, a black T-shirt and an American-made M4 carbine with a telescopic sight.
Witnesses say Hezbollah fighters used rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles, but refrained from shelling parts of Beirut with mortars, which would have threatened civilians for minimal military gain.
The witnesses said militants handed out mobile phone numbers to shopkeepers, telling them to call if anyone attacked their stores.
Hashim Jaber, a former brigadier general in the Lebanese army, described many Hezbollah combatants as “grade C, grade B” operatives who acted like military policemen, supervising unruly fighters from allied militias.
Unlike Sunni al-Qaeda, Shiite Hezbollah is a social and political movement inspired by Iran’s Islamic revolution. It has stepped back from the spectacular bombings, kidnappings and hijackings in which it was implicated in the 1980s and 1990s, but praises Palestinian suicide bombers and helps the Palestinian group Hamas, which has repeatedly fired rockets into Israel.
The US lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group and denounces suspected aid by Iran and Syria. Washington also says al-Qaeda have taken advantage of instability to infiltrate Lebanon, where extremism breeds in Palestinian refugee camps.
Hezbollah says it does not have a foreign branch, but it is believed to have operatives and fund raisers as far afield as Latin America, and among other Shiite Muslim communities in Lebanon’s diaspora of more than 10 million.