Hezbollah's Role In Lebanon's New Government For a year and a half, Lebanon's government was paralyzed by a power struggle between a Western-backed faction and a bloc led by Shiite militant Hezbollah. The deadlock broke in May, when Hezbollah defeated its rivals in several days of fighting. Now a new government has formed, and Hezbollah appears more powerful then ever.
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Hezbollah's Role In Lebanon's New Government

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Hezbollah's Role In Lebanon's New Government

Hezbollah's Role In Lebanon's New Government

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne. Now, reports on two revolutionary movements. First, to Lebanon. Hezbollah, the Shiite military and political movement, has come out of a government crisis stronger than ever. For a year and a half, Lebanon was locked in a dangerous stalemate. The government was paralyzed by a power struggle between a Western-backed faction and bloc led by Hezbollah, which is a close ally of Syria and Iran.

The logjam broke last May, when Hezbollah fighters quickly defeated rivals in several days of fighting in the capital. A new Lebanese government has since been formed, with Hezbollah more powerful than before, as NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Beirut.

IVAN WATSON: Two months ago, Lebanon seemed to be on the brink of civil war, as Lebanese factions battled each other in the streets of Beirut. The mood couldn't have been more different last week, when a prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel prompted celebrations that lasted for days.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: At the gates to Beirut, flag-waving crowds welcomed a convoy carrying the flag-draped coffins of nearly 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters who were handed over by Israel in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah militants in uniforms escorted the motorcade. A 25-year-old Egyptian-Lebanese woman named Rasha Ashraf stood cheering in the crowd, wearing a bright yellow Hezbollah flag wrapped around her body.

Ms. RASHA ASHRAF: I'm so proud today. I'll be honest with you: We in Egypt couldn't do it. We still have bodies in Israel, and we didn't get them yet, but Hezbollah made me feel that there is a hope yet. There is a hope.

Ms. AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB (Author, "Hezbollah: Politics and Religion"): This prisoner exchange is precisely what Hezbollah needs.

WATSON: Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is the author of the book "Hezbollah: Politics and Religion." She says Hezbollah's reputation as a resistance movement against Israel suffered last May, when fighting erupted between Hezbollah's Shiite guerillas and the Sunni Muslim supporters of the rival Lebanese politician, Saad al-Hariri.

Ms. SAAD-GHORAYEB: In dragging itself into these sectarian clashes, Hezbollah obviously fell out of favor more than it had even done so in the past with the Lebanese Sunnis and with other groups in Lebanon who perceived it as having turned its arms against fellow Lebanese, when it had always promised that its arms would never be turned inwardly.

WATSON: After the fighting started on May 7th, it only took two days for Hezbollah to rout its Sunni opponents in Beirut.

Mr. PAUL SALEM (Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut): It showed that it is the strongest player in Lebanon and can impose its will when it wants to.

WATSON: Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center says Hezbollah's military victory brought an end to the year-and-a-half-long political stalemate between the U.S.-backed Lebanese government and a Hezbollah-led opposition.

Mr. SALEM: The logjam was broken, however, because one side won and the other side lost.

WATSON: In the aftermath of the battle, the two factions elected a president, filling a post that had been vacant since last year. Then they agreed to form a new government, which gives more positions to Hezbollah and its allies, as well as veto power over future decisions.

The Carnegie Center's Paul Salem says for now, Hezbollah's victory has settled the geopolitical struggle over Lebanon.

Mr. SALEM: Lebanon really has a new status quo in which the large confrontation between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on side, and Syria and Iran on the other, no longer really applies.

WATSON: But the Sunni-Shiite divide here seems deeper than ever.

(Soundbite of motor)

WATSON: In May, the Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Tariq Jdideh was the scene of fierce clashes between Lebanese Sunnis and Shia. Ibrahim Jamil Kurdi says his twin brother, Zahir, lost his leg in that fighting when a Shiite militant hit him with a hand grenade.

Mr. IBRAHIM JAMIL KURDI: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Since then, Kurdi's father, Jamil, says he refuses to drive his taxi into Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut.

Mr. JAMIL KURDI (Taxi Driver, Beirut, Lebanon): (Through translator) You know, something's broken between the Shia and Sunni. It can't be repaired.

WATSON: When Hezbollah declared the prisoner exchange with Israel a victory for all of Lebanon, the angry Sunni residents of this neighborhood boycotted the celebration. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Beirut.

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