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Lebanon builds up security forces

The move is seen as a bid to counter Iran and Shiite ally Hezbollah.

December 01, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The Lebanese government has nearly doubled the size of its security forces in recent months by adding about 11,000 mostly Sunni Muslim and Christian troops, and has armed them with weapons and vehicles donated by the United Arab Emirates, a Sunni state.

The dramatic increase in Interior Ministry troops, including the creation of a controversial intelligence unit and the expansion of a commando force, is meant to counter the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah, its Shiite ally in Lebanon, Cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat said in an interview this week.

The quiet, speedy buildup indicates that Lebanon's anti-Syria ruling majority, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, has been bracing for armed sectarian conflict since the withdrawal of Syrian forces in the spring of 2005. It also reflects growing tensions across the region between U.S.-allied Sunni Muslims who hold power in most Arab nations and the increasingly influential Shiite-ruled Iran and Hezbollah.

Over the last week, government officials have moved about 8,000 troops -- 5,000 from the army and 3,000 from the newly expanded Internal Security Forces, or ISF -- into Beirut in preparation for a massive Hezbollah-led demonstration set to begin today, Fatfat said.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has summoned his followers to the capital, and has urged them to stay in the streets until the government collapses.

About a month ago, the new ISF troops were given weapons and equipment donated by the United Arab Emirates, a confederation of Sunni states in the Persian Gulf, said Fatfat, who brokered the deal while serving as interior minister.

Some critics in Lebanon worry that the force could get involved in militia-style fighting in the event of street violence.

Fatfat spoke this week from the prime minister's headquarters, where he and other Cabinet ministers have been staying and working under guard. With talk of civil war, the pro-Western ministers fear for their lives.

"In Lebanon, it is dangerous to make politics," Fatfat said. "When I went into politics in 1991, I ... took out an American life insurance policy. But now it is more serious." He said Hezbollah and its allies were "trying to make a coup d'etat."

Even with its expansion, the ISF is inferior to Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, analysts say. But the ISF is the only Lebanese armed force devoted to protecting the Sunni-led coalition struggling to maintain political control, analysts say.

The mixed-sect Lebanese army, which has at least 60,000 ground troops, is overseen by Christians, but is thought to have no strong political allegiances. Nasrallah, who has declared Fatfat and the rest of the government illegitimate tools of U.S. interests, controls a heavily armed Shiite militia.

The role of the United Arab Emirates in the expansion of the ISF illustrates the broader implications of the tensions in Lebanon between Sunnis, with Christian and Druze allies, and Shiite Hezbollah, which has close ties to Iran and Syria.

"All of the Arab governments ... are afraid of the big strength of Iran in all the Middle East," Fatfat said. "In Lebanon, it seems we are an arena between Syria and Israel, but there's a new role for Iran."

The U.S.-led toppling of Iraq's Sunni-dominated regime, along with the growing power and ambition of Shiite-led Iran, has fed tensions between Islam's two major sects, analysts say.

Sunnis around the region, especially the U.S.-backed governments of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, have grown increasingly fearful of Shiite power. That animosity has seeped into Lebanon, especially since the strong military performance of Hezbollah against Israel this summer.

The U.S. this year refused to give weapons to Lebanon's Interior Ministry, Fatfat said. But the Bush administration is friendly with the United Arab Emirates, and the arming of anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon are considered to be in Washington's interests.

"Part of the U.S. strategy there is predicated on building the capability of Lebanese forces," said Dan Byman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University and a former Middle East analyst at the CIA.

He said the U.S. government would like Lebanon to be capable of defeating Hezbollah if need be, "which right now is not the reality."

Until Syria was forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon last year, the Interior Ministry was run by Suleiman Franjieh, a Christian with lifelong ties to the government in Damascus.

At the time, about 13,000 ISF troops were stationed in Beirut. Most had no guns. About a quarter were Shiites, said Amin Hoteit, a military analyst and retired Shiite general in the Lebanese army.

Under de facto Syrian control, the Interior Ministry didn't have enough money to arm its troops, who were marginalized in the face of a powerful Syrian-run Lebanese army, Fatfat said.

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