Violence Shifts Balance of Power in Lebanon

Six days of violence have left more than 60 people dead in Lebanon. The balance of power has shifted and the Shiite Hezbollah militia is stronger than any other force in the country.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, John McCain tries his firepower on the NRA, but first, under an agreement brokered by the Arab League, Beirut's air and sea ports have reopened, and Lebanese politicians are talking again, this time in Qatar. But six days of violence that left more than 60 people dead has shifted the balance of power in Lebanon, proving the Shiite Hezbollah militia to be stronger than any other force in the country, including the military. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.

PETER KENYON: The talk was tough from the government after its loyalist militias were summarily routed by Hezbollah fighters. Saad al-Hariri accused Syria and Iran of pushing Lebanon to the brink of civil war for their own political ends, and the Saudi foreign minister warned that Tehran's support for what he called a coup in Lebanon could jeopardize its relations with all Arab states.

But rhetoric aside, virtually all the actions on the ground have favored Hezbollah and its opposition allies. Hezbollah official Naim Qassem said the opposition was entering the talks in Doha to secure a national unity government in which no party had outright control, in other words, the same veto power the opposition has long sought.

The Bush administration, apparently recognizing the weakness of the government's position, downplayed the prospects for the talks. State Department spokesman Scott McCormack also said Hezbollah's show of force undermined the Shiite militia's claim to be acting in Lebanon's interest.

Mr. SCOTT McCORMACK (Spokesman, United States Department of State): We have seen over the past several days that Hezbollah is willing to kill Lebanese in the interest of their political agenda, which seems to have really no basis other than to try to expand their political power. It operates outside the political system in Lebanon.

KENYON: Analysts here agree that Hezbollah has alienated people with its show of force, but the militia has now served notice that it won't be intimidated by the government. Oussama Safa heads the Lebanese Center for Political Studies.

Mr. OUSSAMA SAFA (General Director, Lebanese Center for Political Studies): These are really the (unintelligible). It has everything to do with security, with the well-being and the sanctity of the Hezbollah (unintelligible).

KENYON: Safa says Hezbollah is determined to maintain its unusual status as both a political party and the most powerful armed force in Lebanon, but he says Hezbollah also knows that turning its weapons against the Lebanese is politically explosive.

Mr. SAFA: So what they did is that they stopped short of overrunning the government headquarters, and what they did, basically they've weakened the government so much that very few options remain other than resigning.

KENYON: One reason Hezbollah was able to carefully calibrate its show of force was the presence of the Lebanese armed forces. The army is universally respected for bridging sectarian divisions and, since 1990 at least, staying out of the infighting that has marked so much of Lebanon's history.

But some pro-government officials say privately that last week, the army seemed to be acting as Hezbollah's assistants, on hand to negotiate cease-fires, man checkpoints and to collect weapons but always from pro-government militias, never from Hezbollah.

Still, Lebanese analysts say if the government expected the army to stand up to Hezbollah, they were being entirely unrealistic.

Mr. MARC SIROIS (Managing Editor, Daily Star): The Lebanese armed forces are largely the equivalent of a peacekeeping force.

KENYON: Marc Sirois is managing editor of the English-language Daily Star. He says the Lebanese armed forces have no air force, other than a few helicopters, and can't defend Lebanon against any serious assault. He says what equipment the army does have came from Syria up until 2005 and mainly from the U.S. since then, but both benefactors were careful not to make the Lebanese army too strong.

Mr. SIROIS: Neither the Syrians, nor today the Americans, have gone to the Lebanese armed forces to be like another military. They don't want to have a military that can defend this country's borders. Now for the Syrians, that meant they didn't ever want to have a Lebanese military that would pressure them to get out. For the Americans, it means they don't want to see a Lebanese military that can defend itself against the Israelis.

KENYON: Washington has announced it will accelerate military aid to Lebanon, but it is not offering any new weaponry likely to make the army a serious threat, either to Hezbollah or any other power in the region. As the Lebanese politicians took off for Qatar, demonstrators outside the newly reopened airport seemed to sum up the Lebanese mood. Their banners read: If you can't reach an agreement, don't come back. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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