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PULLOUT FROM LEBANON

Leader Balks at Sending Troops South

Military: Lebanese premier pledges to restore government authority to border area but doesn't address the defense concerns of residents.

May 26, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIRUT — On a national holiday to celebrate the end of Israeli occupation, Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss made his first tour of his nation's southern border in two decades Thursday and promised to restore government authority to the area.

"We pledge to work for security and stability in this region," Hoss told residents of Khiam. "All the services of the state will swiftly resume in this part of the homeland."

All but national defense, that is.

Hoss continued to resist local appeals and international pressure to move the Lebanese army in to fill the vacuum left by this week's exodus of Israeli soldiers from southern Lebanon. He brought the ministers of telecommunications and post with him, but not the troops.

This is the central concern of most Lebanese in the wake of the Israeli departure, clouding what would otherwise be a sense of euphoria. They want their government to reassert Lebanese sovereignty in the south, and their army to prevent a cross-border confrontation between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops that would bring punishing reprisals against this country.

The Lebanese want their authorities to ensure peace between Christians and Muslims in the south and to keep Hezbollah from controlling the swath of national territory that was in Israel's hands for so long.

Armed Hezbollah guerrillas have blanketed the area with their party flag--rather than the national flag bearing a cedar tree--set up roadblocks and taken over border positions once held by Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, or SLA.

The Iranian- and Syrian-backed guerrillas have shown restraint so far, refraining from firing across the border or seeking revenge against former SLA members and their collaborators. They have also prevented the mass looting and destruction that often accompany such a military transition.

But that has not calmed national fears.

"People are nervous," said Farid Khazen, a political analyst at the American University of Beirut. "They don't know what will happen in the next few weeks and whether there will be another round of violence. It all depends on to what extent the government is present [in the south], and so far there is no government presence."

The Clinton administration is pressing the Lebanese government to stabilize the south and prevent attacks on Israel, which has said it will regard any hostilities across the border as an act of war. Diplomats are threatening to hold up international reconstruction aid if Lebanon does not prevent attacks.

At the same time, the administration is warning Syria, the de facto power in Lebanon, against giving Hezbollah or Palestinian extremists the green light to launch assaults.

The Lebanese government says it is not anxious to cover Israel's back in the wake of a unilateral withdrawal rather than a regional peace accord with Lebanon and Syria. It wants U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon to move in first.

Syria, which has used Hezbollah to fight a proxy war for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, does not want the Jewish state to rest easy as long as it holds that land. The Lebanese government also expects reparations for more than two decades of occupation and an agreement to repatriate the more than 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.

Syria's weakened position after this week's withdrawal worries the Lebanese as much as Israel's threats of fierce retaliation do.

"The Syrians are weak, and when they feel cornered they can be very dangerous," said a Lebanese political analyst who asked not to be named. "It's not very difficult to create a crisis if they want to create one."

Such a crisis is likely to be internal as well as international, he said. The Lebanese are worried that sectarian tensions could rise if Hezbollah remains in political and military control of the south.

When the Muslim guerrillas moved in behind the departing Israelis and claimed credit for routing the occupiers with a war of attrition, Lebanese from across the country's religious and ethnic communities congratulated the "resistance." But history has made the Lebanese suspicious of militias, and much of the country does not share Hezbollah's Islamic world view.

Since it was created as a French mandate in 1920, Lebanon has rarely been at peace or in control of its own affairs. Ethnic and religious rivalries led to a 1975-90 civil war between Christian and Muslim militias, marked by assassinations, massacres, bombings and kidnappings.

The sight of so many Hezbollah guerrillas and supporters brandishing weapons this week renewed old fears. In addition to Hezbollah, factions from Lebanon's civil war reappeared: Members of Lebanon's Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party and the Lebanese Communist Party made a show of their weapons and set up roadblocks.

Anxiety was especially high among Christians in the southern zone, many of whom had supported the Israeli-backed SLA.

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