Features

Proxy war

Middle East | Bush administration blinks as Hezbollah brokers its street fight into a political victory in Lebanon

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

The White House went to great lengths to refute reports in the Jerusalem Post of a Bush plan to attack Iran. But it made no attempt to deny that the United States is preparing to send more military aid to Beirut-aid meant to bolster Lebanese security forces while weakening Hezbollah and its principal backers-Syria and Iran.

Diplomatically, however, the Bush administration stood down May 21, when a deal to end the country's stalemate left Hezbollah with veto power over Lebanon's Western-backed government. That means the militant group is virtually free to build up its weapons, including rockets aimed at Israel.

U.S. support for the Lebanese Armed Forces may be too little too late as it works to regain control of areas won by Shiite-aligned militias and Hezbollah during a week of clashes with pro-government forces across Lebanon.

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As the streets of Beirut exploded with hostile fire on May 7, Lebanese braced themselves for bloodshed-an all too familiar sight in this battle-weary nation. In the worst internal conflict since the country's 1975-1990 civil war, the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah briefly seized control of Beirut and blocked access to the airport.

"Even the Israeli enemy never dared to do to Beirut what Hezbollah has done," Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said. The violence was a response to a move by Lebanese cabinet members to ban the militant group's communication network.

Sat 7, one of the region's largest Christian broadcasting stations, struggled to keep its production studio in Lebanon running during the six days of fighting. With travel at a virtual standstill, station employees were prevented from getting to work and worried about distributing broadcast tapes with the airport closed.

"Our staff is very worried. They come to the office every day not knowing what is going to happen next," said Lebanon's SAT 7 director Naji Daoud. "We were on the verge of a civil war. Thank God it didn't happen. But at this very moment nothing is clear about the future."

More than 60 people died in the violence, and attempts by the rival factions to negotiate a national unity government ended with Hezbollah winning important concessions last week that allow it and its rival factions back into power.

Experts called the deal an out-and-out win for Hezbollah, while U.S. spokesmen worked to spin the development. "It's a necessary and positive step," said David Welch, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East. "It's not for us to decide how Lebanon does this."

Although fighting is at a standstill, this will most likely not be the last word from Hezbollah. Already, said Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of Israeli military intelligence, there is a "massive Hezbollah presence," funded by Syria and Iran, including rockets, combat forces, and observation points, south of the Litani River near Israel, in violation of a UN-brokered ceasefire that ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

"The United States is watching Hezbollah winning against the Cedars Revolution without major counter strategies," complained Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Lebanese-American.

"The American public will begin to ask questions about the meaning of the war on terror," he told WORLD: "We spend $500 billion on the war in Iraq . . . and we let a whole country slip into Iranian hands without supporting the brave resistance put up by a few peasants against Hezbollah in Mount Lebanon?"

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