Loyalties complicate peacekeeping task (Lebanon)

Along this desolate border, Hezbollah fighters preside over checkpoints, their weapons just out of sight in nearby depots. Israeli soldiers cluster on nearby hilltops, clashing occasionally with enemy fighters and braving terrain still seeded with landmines from the 34-day conflict.


More than a thousand Lebanese soldiers -- supposedly the linchpin of renewed government authority in the south -- hunker down in remote outposts, sip tea on the porches of commandeered houses, and tentatively ask directions from Hezbollah sympathizers roaming the streets.

A visit to the former front lines illustrates the power vacuum in southern Lebanon in the aftermath of the war between Hezbollah and Israel. A United Nations peacekeeping force being assembled to stabilize the region will have to navigate a hornet's nest of divided loyalties and potentially explosive rivalries, in an environment where both Israel and Hezbollah still talk ominously about planning for the "next phase" of the war.

The Lebanese Army, deploying in the rugged hills facing the Israeli border for the first time since the 1960s, has said in statements that "we stand beside our brothers in the resistance," underscoring Hezbollah's enduring power. So far about 2,000 Lebanese soldiers out of an expected force of 15,000 have moved into the country's south.

The United Nations is to dispatch another 15,000 international troops, but it might take months before a force is assembled. Under the cease-fire terms the UN and Lebanese troops are supposed to police southern Lebanon. Israel and the United States expect peacekeepers to help the Lebanese disarm Hezbollah and end the organization's dominance of the south. Lebanon, however, insists that disarming Hezbollah isn't part of the cease-fire resolution, and says it won't pit its military against Hezbollah.

Many of the Shi'ite Muslims here who support Hezbollah see the recent war as a triumph over Israel. One of them, Ali Ibrahim Sirhan, 23, who fights for a militia loyal to Hezbollah, welcomes the deployment of the Lebanese Army -- as long as it's clear that Hezbollah and its allies are still in charge.

"The Lebanese Army is welcome here. The army and the resistance are one," Sirhan said, glowering toward the Israeli town of Metulla on the other side of the border. "They will never disarm the resistance."

Lebanese soldiers have been welcomed by Sunni Muslims and Christians in some parts of the region where they hadn't been stationed in decades, but Hezbollah supporters express open mistrust of the troops, and the troops themselves show no enthusiasm for their new role.

"We just want to go home," griped a Lebanese private who would give only his first name, Mohammed, and who has spent 25 years in the army.

His company has just been deployed to a school at the end of a dirt road between the Lebanese villages of Shebaa and Kfar Chouba, along the border with Israeli-held territory. An Israeli listening post, with imposing radar dishes, and a line of Israeli surveillance cameras on red towers overlook the soldiers from the highlands.

But closer to the international border, in areas where only a wire fence separates Israeli and Lebanese towns, the Lebanese Army was barely in evidence. On the Israeli side of the fence, military engineers repaired a patrol road beside an apple orchard. On the Lebanese side, Hezbollah flags hung over the ruins of a destroyed observation post.

Peacekeepers already in the region who are part of the existing contingent of 2,000 that remain of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon since 1978, were setting up checkpoints in areas held days ago by Hezbollah fighters. At the top of a mountain pass leading to the Hasan Gate, formerly used as a passage to the Shebaa Farms area held by Israel, a contingent of peacekeepers from India had parked on the edge of the deserted road.

"We're waiting for the Lebanese Army," said Lieutenant Kunal Choudhary, an Indian infantry officer, said. "We were told to set up checkpoints and wait to hand them over."

UN officials have been hammering out the details of the Israeli withdrawal and transfer of power in long meetings at the border with Israeli and Lebanese commanders. But despite Hezbollah's unmistakable presence on the ground, there are no Hezbollah representatives at the meetings.

On the border at Kfar Kila, Sirhan -- the Hezbollah supporter and ambulance driver for the Lebanese civil defense service -- said Hezbollah stood ready to fight again at a moment's notice.

"If anything happens, Hezbollah will come back. After we all die, that's when Hezbollah is gone," Sirhan said, adding that his younger brother, 19, died this month fighting the Israelis. "I'm 100 percent with the resistance. As far as I'm concerned, the war ends when there is nothing left of Israel. Hezbollah will never end."

Nor did the Lebanese Army appear eager to assert itself in villages dominated by Hezbollah that were the site of the fiercest battles of the war -- places like Taibe, where weeks of punishing clashes killed dozens of Lebanese and Israeli fighters.

This week, mourners lighted candles and burned incense at a mass grave in Taibe's city center. Seven Hezbollah fighters were buried along with 11 civilians in the hilly cemetery, marked for the time being with a plywood border and a layer of white stones. Smoke from the incense wafted toward the pine branches overhead.

Samira Sharafeldeen, 33, dressed in black, smiled as she recalled her three cousins, all fighters, buried in the grave.

"I am not sorry about what happened. They reached heaven before us," she said of her dead relatives. "Crying brings sadness to a country, but blood brings life."

Swaying beside the grave in the late afternoon sun, Sharafeldeen dismissed the Lebanese Army as ineffectual collaborators. She cited one incident, in which a Lebanese military commander was captured on videotape serving tea to an Israeli officer at a barracks in the town of Marjayoun. The officer was later arrested by the Lebanese government, and Hezbollah's television station has aired the footage repeatedly.

"Of course, the Lebanese Army has got a role," Sharafeldeen said, laughing. "They will serve tea."

Von: 24.8.06, The Boston Globe, by Thanassis Cambanis

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