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Focus Shifts to Disarming Hezbollah

The truce holds for a second day. But the militia balks at ceding weapons before Israel pulls out, stirring discord in Lebanon.

August 16, 2006|Borzou Daragahi and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

BEIRUT — A two-day calm held in Lebanon and northern Israel as political leaders scrambled Tuesday to resolve conflicting domestic and international demands on how -- and even whether -- to disarm the Hezbollah movement in an attempt to make the cease-fire permanent.

Leaders of Hezbollah, which has a share of power in the Lebanese government, remained adamant that quick disarmament was out of the question, setting up a showdown with the rest of the fractured Lebanese body politic.

Signs of discord emerged when Lebanese Cabinet members for the second time postponed a critical meeting to discuss a U.S.-backed cease-fire deal.

In Israel, meanwhile, sharp recriminations were directed at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, which had vowed to rid southern Lebanon of Hezbollah militants at the start of a 34-day bombardment and siege that began after the group seized two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others.

Unresolved questions remained about the mandate of international troops to be deployed in southern Lebanon, where aerial bombardment flattened entire villages.

The Israeli military said it killed three suspected Hezbollah fighters in two separate incidents Tuesday, but the soldiers deployed in Lebanon, at one point numbering as many as 30,000, continued to trickle home.

Displaced Lebanese flooded into their bombed-out villages at a brisk pace, getting a sobering look at what more than a month of war had wrought.

"No victory in this war can replace the agony that we have seen," said Tami Mahanah, 74, a frail man who came out of hiding in a southern Lebanon valley and hiked more than two miles to his destroyed home.

"Destruction," he said amid a landscape littered with the rotting carcasses of livestock. "I only see destruction. I don't believe that victory is worth this destruction."

Israeli forces will begin handing over positions to 2,000 United Nations troops today. The transfer is part of what a U.N. official called the first stage of returning to Lebanese control an area long under the grip of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, political party and social organization that has long controlled stretches of southern and central Lebanon and parts of southern Beirut.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the Israeli army chief of staff, said the troop pullout could be complete within seven to 10 days, around the time U.N. officials anticipate a second influx of international forces.

"The whole exercise aims at, as quick as possible, a withdrawal of the Israeli forces," said Richard Morczynski, a political affairs advisor for the U.N. force in place in southern Lebanon before the war.

But questions remain as to whether the force would meet U.S. and Israeli interpretations of the U.N. cease-fire resolution approved last week. Though small numbers of U.N. troops already are in Lebanon, a beefed-up U.N. force of as many as 15,000 is not expected for as long as a year, Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the Frenchman who leads the current U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, told the French daily Le Monde.

U.N. officials in New York continued to haggle Tuesday over the mandate and operational rules of the international troops in southern Lebanon, including whether they would have the ability to detain or fire upon suspected Hezbollah fighters engaged in warfare or gunrunning.

Many of the nations considering contributing troops to the force have made their participation contingent upon the outcome of the debate. Some have said they prefer a monitoring role, while others seek more robust rules of engagement, said a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Among the nations said to be considering taking part are France, Indonesia, Italy and Malaysia.

Lebanese and Israeli government leaders also face political fissures that have erupted during and after the conflict.

With the piles of rubble still smoldering, Lebanon confronts the dual tasks of rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and solidifying a shaky political consensus among the country's fractious religious groups.

"The government and everyone else are under enormous pressure to respond to the people's needs," said Mohammed Shatah, a senior advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. "There is widespread exhaustion. There's a lot of anxiety whether this will end in a permanent peace."

Though its strongholds in southern Beirut and Lebanon have been destroyed in the Israeli bombing campaign, Hezbollah has emerged politically stronger among Lebanon's Shiite plurality as well as some Christians, Sunnis and Druze angered by the scale of the Israeli offensive and impressed by the militia's battlefield successes.

Traumatized by the bombing and angry at Israel and the West, few Lebanese appear to be in any mood to talk about dismantling a group that inflicted pain on what many call a longtime enemy.

"Hezbollah, in my opinion, will not disarm; it will rearm," said Abdo Saad, director of the Beirut Center for Research and Information, a private think tank.

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