Arms challenge awaits Hizbollah after Lebanon poll

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is arguably Lebanon’s most powerful leader and the prowess of his Hizbollah fighters gives him prestige far beyond its borders.

He has nothing to fear when Lebanon’s phased parliamentary polls move south on Sunday, with victory assured for Hizbollah in alliance with Amal, the other main pro-Syrian group in the Shi’ite Muslim heartlands bordering Israel.

The Amal-Hizbollah “steamroller” is set to sweep the region’s 23 seats in the second stage of elections that began in mainly Sunni Muslim Beirut last Sunday with a landslide win for the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

But Nasrallah will need all his political skill to deal with changes in Lebanon now that Syrian troops are gone and to fend off U.S.-led pressure on Hizbollah to abandon its weapons.

“Any thought of disarming the resistance is madness,” Nasrallah told ecstatic crowds at a liberation rally in the south last week to mark the fifth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon after relentless Hizbollah attacks.

Vowing to fight any forcible attempt to disarm his guerrillas, he said Hizbollah had a hidden arsenal of more than 12,000 rockets that created a “balance of terror” with Israel.

The bearded 45-year-old cleric mixed barbs against Israel and the United States with witty colloquial asides ridiculing compromise ideas aimed at meeting a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that all militias in Lebanon disband.

A popular hero in his own Shi’ite constituency, Nasrallah has also proved adept at appealing to a broader swathe of Lebanese opinion as Hizbollah moves deeper into local politics.

Wooed for the disciplined voting bloc he commands, Nasrallah has done deals with anti-Syrian factions in Beirut and elsewhere, as well as with Amal, staunchly loyal to Syria.

He stands out as leader of a group respected for its long struggle against Israeli occupation, its social welfare network and its perceived distance from corruption.

Yet the Israeli pullout in 2000 eroded any clear need for guerrillas to roam the south, even if governments in Beirut and Damascus echo Hizbollah’s contention that the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms border area is part of Lebanon that still needs liberating. The United Nations says it belongs to Syria.   


Nasrallah knows the weapons issue won’t go away. Some Christian leaders want Hizbollah disarmed and there are Muslim voices too who view its military wing as an anomaly that must be resolved if the Lebanese state is to regain full authority.

“The resistance, a core source of strength for Lebanon, will be targeted after the elections,” Nasrallah said last week. “The resistance will be the number one target for the Israelis, Americans and the West and we must prepare to confront this.”

President Bush has hinted that Hizbollah’s “terrorist” status could change if it disarmed, but it is not clear if the movement is ready to become a purely Lebanese actor, rather than one responsive to Iran or Syria.

Nasrallah has offered to join a national dialogue, but says Hizbollah’s weaponry will be needed until there is an overall peace settlement with Israel, a remote prospect.

Moving away from Hizbollah’s “resistance” identity is likely to be a slow process and one vulnerable to the vagaries of regional politics, at least while Iran is at odds with the West over its nuclear program and the threat of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iranian facilities remains possible.

Hizbollah’s rocket arsenal would be an obvious means of retaliation, even though Lebanon would pay a fearful price.

“Any internal Lebanese dialogue with Hizbollah could be hindered or pushed forward by what happens in the nuclear dispute with Iran,” Hizbollah analyst Nizar Hamzeh said.

He said Nasrallah’s vow to resist disarmament by force must be taken at face value — not that the Lebanese army, with its mostly Shi’ite soldiers, could be asked to do the job.

Nevertheless the huge anti-Syrian street protests staged by Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims after Hariri’s killing on Feb. 14 posed an uncomfortable dilemma for Hizbollah.

Nasrallah organized a vast Shi’ite counter-demonstration in the heart of Beirut, but took care not to emerge as defender of Syria’s widely hated 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

He banned Hizbollah emblems and addressed the crowd with a giant Lebanese flag behind him, upholding the movement’s right to keep its arms, thanking the Syrians for their past “sacrifices” — and implicitly accepting their departure.