Hezbollah Takes the Lead in Rebuilding Lebanon

The Lebanese military begins deploying into south Lebanon to police the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. But Hezbollah is already there, making a major effort to help refugees return home and repair the damage left by Israeli attacks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Lebanon's army is moving into the southern part of the country today, the stronghold of Hezbollah. The soldiers' presence does not mean an end to Hezbollah's power there. The Shiite Muslim group has boosted its popular support after its war with Israel and at least for now it has kept its weapons after a ceasefire. In a moment, we'll learn how Hezbollah functions as a mini-state within Lebanon. First, NPR's Ivan Watson reports on how Hezbollah has taken the lead in Lebanon's reconstruction. He begins in the city of Tyre.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Hezbollah did not waste any time. Just hours after the fighting stopped on Monday, Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, announced the Shiite movement would shift its focus from rocketing Israel to rebuilding Lebanon. It's a pledge that was repeated yesterday by one of Nasrallah's top lieutenants, speaking through a translator.

Sheikh NABIL KAWUK (Hezbollah Lieutenant): (Through translator) I declare the start, the real start, of taking away all the traces of the Israeli attack on south Lebanon.

WATSON: Sheikh Nabil Kawuk gave a press conference in the southern port city of Tyre, standing on top of the rubble of a demolished apartment building.

Sheikh KAWUK: (Through translator) And starting from today we will pay for those who lost their houses and their houses were destroyed.

WATSON: Hezbollah has promised to provide housing and furniture for the next year to each of the tens of thousands of families whose homes were destroyed by the month-long Israeli bombing campaign. Hezbollah spokesmen say the funding will come from foreign donors, including Iran, and it will be disbursed directly, not through the Lebanese government. Hezbollah is under pressure to care for its most ardent supporters, the Shiite Muslims who bore the brunt of the conflict.

(Soundbite of cars honking)

WATSON: At the start of the war, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the Shiite heartland of southern Lebanon, waving white flags from their cars. They are now jamming the cratered roads leading back. But many of them don't have homes to return to.

(Soundbite of hammering on rubble)

WATSON: In Tyre, an electrician named Nahim Sueydan(ph) watched from below as his son straddled a mountain of rubble and hammered away at the debris.

Mr. NAHIM SUEYDAN (Resident, Tyre): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Sueydan said they were trying to salvage some clothes from what was left of his apartment. He and his family of six appear to have lost everything and yet the electrician's faith in Hezbollah and its leader appeared unshakeable.

Mr. SUEYDAN: (Through translator) Just like he promised he will take victory from Israel, he will rebuild our apartments back.

(Soundbite of bulldozers)

WATSON: All across the devastated south, bulldozers and construction crews have already been at work, often under the direction of men who appear to be Hezbollah militants. In the village of Bourj Shmaili(ph) a crew of plumbers were laying a new water pipe through the Volkswagen-sized crater left by an Israeli air strike in the center of town. But there's competition to claim credit for the work here. Some Hezbollah supporters said this was a Hezbollah project, even though the deputy mayor later said it was funded by the Lebanese government. In a speech yesterday, Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, called for an end to what he called the mentality of mini-states.

Mr. FOUAD SINIORA (Lebanon Prime Minister): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: There will be a single state in Lebanon, he said. It will be the sole decision-making power. There will be no dual authority.

The announcement came on the eve of today's deployment of thousands of Lebanese soldiers to what has traditionally been Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Yesterday Sheikh Nabil Kawuk said Hezbollah agreed to the army deployment but he refused to discuss disarming the movement's military wing.

Sheikh KAWUK: (Through translator) We welcome the Lebanese army. And it is not the time to discuss disarming Hezbollah.

WATSON: Analysts here have long predicted that if the Lebanese government tries to disarm Hezbollah, it will face opposition from within the ranks of the Lebanese army.

Mr. MUSTAFA MEHANA(ph) (Officer, Lebanese Army): Hey, listen good. You cannot take off Hezbollah weapons. No.

WATSON: Mustafa Mehana is a Lebanese army officer. He says Hezbollah members fed and protected his family throughout Israel's bombardment of southern Beirut. Now Mehana swears allegiance to Hassan Nasrallah.

Mr. MEHANA: Now, now, and now. Three times (unintelligible) Hassan, say, I want some guys to fight in the south, I will take off my army...

WATSON: Uniform.

Mr. MEHANA: ...uniform and I will go. I will go.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Beirut.

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