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Round One of Hizbullah's attempt to take over Lebanon has failed. Watch out for Round Two. The struggle over Lebanon is a battle in the war being waged by Iran, Syria, and their allies seeking to control the Middle East.
Hizbullah is the largest group representing the Shi'ite Muslim community in multicultural Lebanon. But Hizbullah is also the client of Teheran and Damascus, acting in their interest more than that of Lebanon itself. Indeed, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah is the official local representative of Iran's spiritual guide.
Against Hizbullah stand the majority of the other communities, Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Druse. This alliance controls the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora; the president, Emile Lahoud, is a Syrian client, elected in 1998 when Damascus controlled the electoral process. Last summer's war, set off by Hizbullah's cross-border raids against Israel, let the Islamist group pose both as victor and as Lebanon's patriotic champion.
Both claims are thin. Hizbullah did not so much win as survive the war. Lebanon suffered tremendous material damage. While Hizbullah staged showy ceremonies to give money for reconstruction - reportedly counterfeit US dollars - it has done little since then. Moreover, the dispatch of a UN force to southern Lebanon as part of the cease-fire blocks Hizbullah's ability to attack Israel or control that area.
WHATEVER political capital Hizbullah gained in the war was quickly squandered as the group sought to take over Lebanon. Hizbullah's arrogance and aggressiveness forced most other political forces to align against it.
In its propaganda, Hizbullah denounced these rivals, known as the March 14 movement, as American and Israeli agents. This movement began after the assassination of popular former prime minister Rafik Hariri by Syria in February 2005. Since then there have been about 20 terrorist operations, mostly attempts engineered by Syria to murder other leading politicians and journalists.
In his shrill speeches, Nasrallah - who remained in hiding, fearful of Israeli retaliation - took a hard-line stance. Demonstrations were organized, roads blocked, and massive sit-ins established to show Hizbullah's power.
But the majority struck back. Christian and Sunni Muslim militias asserted their control over the places where those communities lived in Beirut. They also cut roads, showing that Shi'ite neighborhoods could be easily surrounded and isolated. The government refused to resign.
TWO THINGS particularly anger most Lebanese. First, in its bid for power Hizbullah is ready to drag the country back into communal civil war. Everyone remembers the terrible strife and bloodshed that shook the country from 1975 to 1990 when 100,000 people were killed, 100,000 seriously injured, 250,000 emigrated, and almost 1 million displaced during that fighting in a country whose population is under 4 million. That Hizbullah is ready to revive that senseless slaughter and wreckage in order to impose a Shi'ite Islamist state on Lebanon - a country about half non-Muslim and 70 percent non-Shi'ite - is horrifying.
The second problem is Hizbullah's subservience to Iran and Syria. While the group does represent most, though by no means all, Lebanese Shi'ites, its positions are often dictated by foreign interests.
For example, Hizbullah is trying to block any serious inquiry into the Hariri murder and punishment of those responsible. Both UN-directed and Lebanese investigations have shown direct involvement by Syria's regime and its Lebanese clients. Indeed, the UN investigation named both the brother and brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad as being behind the killing. Hizbullah's and Syria's number-one demand is that the Lebanese government must abandon the effort to find who killed Hariri.
THE NUMBER-TWO demand is that Hizbullah be given 30 percent of the power in Lebanon's government. This alone would let it veto anything, such as an attempt to disarm Hizbullah's private army or put southern Lebanon under government rule. This would also be enough to give Hizbullah, along with its pro-Syrian allies, control of the government altogether.
The other two demands, backed by Syria, are to have quick parliamentary elections and get rid of the March 14 movement's legislative majority; but no presidential elections, to keep Syria's man in office. Lebanon's government is never going to accept these conditions. It is also unlikely - despite the temptation felt by many in the West - that democratic countries are going to turn over Lebanon to Syria in order to appease the Damascus regime.
As a result, Hizbullah's first bid for power has been turned back. But it may not be long before Hizbullah, and its Syrian sponsors, turn to Plan B: the assassination of Lebanese leaders. One cabinet minister, Pierre Gemayel, was killed last November, on a day when an attempt against another minister failed. If two more ministers were killed, the government would fall.
The other tactic could be attacks on UN forces in southern Lebanon in an attempt to drive them out of the country. Syria has hinted such assaults may take place. Though carried out by Syrian agents, they would be blamed on shadowy al-Qaida forces.
Lebanon is a battlefield in the broader effort of Iran and Syria to gain hegemony in the region. It is imperative that Lebanon's government and majority be given international support so they can resist this campaign, whose ultimate power rests on a base of terrorism and subversion.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal.
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