KHIAM, Lebanon -- Yellow Hezbollah banners flutter throughout the hilltop villages of southern Lebanon where Mohammed Ghosen, a portly 32-year-old, has helped build the party into a political and military authority over the years.
Hezbollah-funded schools and hospitals serve thousands of the region's mostly poor residents, who revere the party and its still active armed wing for ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon more than four years ago. The national government has only a token presence here, with a few army checkpoints.
A Hezbollah emblem is displayed atop a wrecked Israeli military truck in southern Lebanon. The group is under pressure to give up its weapons.
(Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
"We have ideology and support," said Ghosen, a Hezbollah activist for more than half his life. "Our success can be seen in the peaceful existence between the Lebanese army and the military wing of Hezbollah."
But relations between Hezbollah and many Lebanese are growing more strained by the day.
A debate over the nature of Hezbollah and its long-term goals in Lebanon has been reignited in the past few weeks. Dormant since the end of the country's civil war 15 years ago, the debate is now bringing pressure on the party to give up the arsenal that once made it a heroic symbol in the Arab world. The outcome could determine whether Hezbollah remains one sectarian party among many, or realizes its early leaders' vision of creating an Islamic state.
Leaders of Hezbollah -- which emerged during the Lebanese war and played key roles in the kidnapping of Americans and the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 -- have said they are committed to achieving their populist political agenda through democratic means. But a growing number of Lebanese politicians said they feared three factors -- the party's demographic clout, a potent arsenal that includes guns, rockets and a new drone spy plane, and authority to operate largely as an independent government in southern Lebanon -- were fueling broader ambitions.
Concerns Over Clout
Although Lebanon has not conducted a national census since the 1950s, many analysts said an up-to-date count would show that most of Lebanon's 4 million people were Shiites. Not all Shiites are loyal to Hezbollah. But Western diplomats and political analysts said the party's highly developed organization, reputation for clean government and populist message would make it a strong contender for national leadership in any election unbound by the current power-sharing system of governance that brought an end to years of sectarian civil strife. Hezbollah leaders have begun openly criticizing that system, which apportions the country's top political jobs based on religious affiliation.
Concerns over Hezbollah's place in Lebanese society reemerged in August when party leaders backed a three-year term extension for President Emile Lahoud, a move pushed by the Syrian government. Syria and Iran are Hezbollah's chief foreign patrons.
During the debate, the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution sponsored by the United States and France demanding that "all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias" be disarmed, a tacit reference to Hezbollah. But party leaders said they had no intention of doing so while Israel occupied Lebanese land, contending Israeli troops were in the disputed 100-square-mile Shebaa Farms below this hilltop town on the southern border. Israel held onto the hilly land after its May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon as a security buffer, something it says it needs because Hezbollah and Palestinian militias operating from refugee camps occasionally fire rockets into Israeli territory.
Thousands of anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah demonstrators took to the streets Nov. 23 in Beirut, the capital 40 miles northwest of here, chanting, "The only army we want in Lebanon is the Lebanese army." Most of those taking part were Christian opposition groups concerned about Hezbollah's armed clout. A raucous counter-rally followed a week later, carried live on Hezbollah's satellite television channel, al-Manar. The State Department Friday classified the channel as a terrorist organization, like its sponsors.
Hezbollah leaders, in addition to holding their own rallies, have sent more subtle reminders of their demographic power. During the debate over Lahoud's term extension, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah recommended that the matter be put to a popular vote.
"As long as they receive money from Iran, as long as they believe they can turn Lebanon into an Islamic society, then we have a real problem with Hezbollah," said Gebran Tueni, a Christian, who is the publisher of al-Nahar, Lebanon's most influential newspaper.
Ties That Bind
The al-Janoub Hospital in the southern city of Nabatiyah sits across from a Shiite mosque, the Zahar Boutique and Yassine Chicken, whose smells waft into the spotless waiting room. A photograph of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Shiite revolution in Iran, hangs on the wall above the receptionist, a woman cloaked in black.
The 30-bed hospital opened nearly a decade ago, at a time when southern Lebanon was the battleground in a war pitting Hezbollah and another Muslim militia against thousands of Israeli troops and the South Lebanon Army, a mostly Christian militia aligned with Israel. Today 50,000 patients pass through its wide halls each year, regardless of their political affiliation. The hospital receives $100,000 a month from Hezbollah, which is expanding its 50-hospital network into northern Lebanon.