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The power of Hezbollah

Though a political deal in Lebanon may avert civil war, it codifies the group's growing clout.

May 22, 2008

Lebanon's factions appear to have halted a nascent civil war -- at least temporarily -- with an agreement struck Wednesday in Qatar between the Western-backed government of Fouad Siniora and the Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah. But the peace deal cannot fairly be called a compromise. Hezbollah won That's the result of its stunning military victory earlier this month after the Lebanese army remained neutral as Hezbollah forces seized West Beirut and critical roads leading to Damascus. Siniora's government was forced to make serious military concessions to Hezbollah and to enter into talks brokered by Qatar, which has close ties to Syria.

Depending on one's ideology, the deal reflects a necessary acceptance of political and military reality, or it is a sickening defeat for the secular, democratic movement that began March 14, 2005, and ultimately kicked the Syrians out of Lebanon. Either way, it's a blow to the U.S., which has hailed the Cedar Revolution as a triumph of democracy and sent significant military aid to Lebanon in the hopes of preventing a Syrian comeback. Now it sees Hezbollah, a terrorist group that is in some ways more frightening than Al Qaeda, triumphing in Lebanon less than a year after Hamas took over Gaza.

In some ways, this outcome was inevitable. The Shiites had long been punching below their weight in Lebanese politics because of the inability of their spiritual leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, to translate his immense popularity and military strength into political power. Now he has. The deal gives Hezbollah veto power in the Cabinet in exchange for a pledge not to use its weapons to settle political disputes. Needless to say, it does not require Hezbollah to disarm, as a U.N. resolution toothlessly demanded.

However, by turning his guns on his own countrymen, something he said he would never do, Nasrallah has squandered much of the credibility he had earned among many Lebanese as the nation's premier resistance fighter against Israel. And therein lies hope that Nasrallah's command of the Lebanese Shiites could one day be challenged. Hezbollah would have had far more power in Lebanon by now if it had begun building its stake in the government years ago. Instead, it boycotted the Cabinet, held the parliament hostage, prevented the election of a new president and killed scores of people to demonstrate its military power. Now that it has gained the political leverage it longed for, will it use its clout to help unite and rebuild Lebanon?

Don't bet on it. Damascus and Tehran are likely to call the important shots, while Washington is left to ponder the meaning of yet another rout of one of its best Middle East allies by a popular but violent Islamist movement.

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