Lebanon Debates Disarming of Hezbollah
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Condoleezza Rice's visit to Beirut came at a time of growing debate in Lebanon. The issue: whether the Islamist political and paramilitary group Hezbollah should be disarmed. NPR's Deborah Amos has that story.
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
In Lebanon today, who you are and where you live defines opinions about Hezbollah.
(Soundbite of vehicle)
AMOS: In South Lebanon, for Shiite Muslims who farm along these hills and valleys, Hezbollah is the dominant power. Israel is right next door, so close you can see the red rooftops of an Israeli settlement.
(Soundbite of resort activity)
AMOS: At a summer resort on the Awali River, Abu Ala(ph) says he's against any disarmament of Hezbollah. Israeli troops controlled this area until five years ago.
Mr. ABU ALA: (Through Translator) Through resistance, Hezbollah were able to make Israel withdraw. And if there wasn't Hezbollah, this area here would not be safe.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
AMOS: In the largely Christian districts of central Lebanon, opinions are quite different. Akram Shpir(ph) is a young businessman.
Mr. AKRAM SHPIR (Businessman): We do want to disarm Hezbollah. There is no excuse now to keep Hezbollah.
AMOS: `The Israelis are gone, and now so are the Syrians,' he explains. `Lebanon needs economic help from the West, but won't get that help until Lebanon complies with a UN resolution to disarm Hezbollah.'
Mr. SHPIR: We cannot do it ourselves. We have economic crisis in here. We need money, so we need to do this.
AMOS: The idea of disarming Hezbollah has growing support in Lebanon. Hezbollah's political wing remains widely respected. It has been part of the mainstream for many years with seats in Lebanon's parliament, but disarmament Hezbollah's leadership remains adamantly against, says political analyst Reinoud Leenders.
Mr. REINOUD LEENDERS (Political Analyst): I think Hezbollah is doing everything it can to get involved into Lebanese politics, but exactly with the aim in mind to keep their arms.
AMOS: Which may explain why Hezbollah insisted on a Cabinet seat in the new government after a strong showing in June elections, says Leenders.
Mr. LEENDERS: They say, `Literally, we are going to participate in the government in order to make sure this debate is not going anywhere.'
AMOS: The debate is about a militia that is all but invisible for most Lebanese. Armed and funded by Iran, supported by Syria, Hezbollah's fighters are in the South, where they still engage in occasional clashes with Israeli forces. This week, the United Nations offered to help expand the Lebanese army's presence in the South.
Unidentified Man #1: Go!
(Soundbite of shooting)
AMOS: Like all institutions in the country, the army reflects Lebanon's sectarian makeup, divided between Christians and Muslims. Lebanese author Sophia Saada(ph) warns against any suggestion that the army could be used to force Hezbollah to disarm.
Ms. SOPHIA SAADA (Lebanese Author): The army, itself, will dissolve if you attempt to launch the army against Hezbollah. The Shiites in the army will secede. They will never, never kill their brothers or family members.
(Soundbite of prayer)
Unidentified Man #2: (Chanting in foreign language)
AMOS: In Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, Friday prayers are delivered by the movement's spiritual leader, Sheikh Hussein Fadlallah. His sermons show how much Hezbollah has changed over the years. Fadlallah regularly condemns al-Qaeda. More often he talks about political reforms, an end to corruption in Lebanon's government. Around the corner from the mosque is Hezbollah's political think tank. The center's president, Dr. Ali Faiyard(ph), says Hezbollah is more than its militia.
Dr. ALI FAIYARD (President, Hezbollah's Political Think Tank): (Through Translator) Hezbollah is social services, medical services, including hospitals, educational services, including schools. It is all these things plus the gun or the military.
AMOS: The question is: Can Hezbollah be convinced it can protect the rights of its followers without weapons? It's what the Bush administration wants. Paul Salem, a political analyst, says disarmament can come only through negotiations, and it will take time.
Mr. PAUL SALEM (Political Analyst): So it's a complex issue that the Americans realize the Lebanese government can't just go along and, you know, address it overnight. So they're giving it, I think, a long leash, as it were, giving it a long timetable.
AMOS: A Lebanese Cabinet minister with close ties to Hezbollah says he's been asked to serve as an intermediary between the Islamist movement and Washington. Deborah Amos, NPR News.