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Lebanese Wary of a Rising Hezbollah

Ahmad Saad, the hospital's director and a member of Hezbollah's national health committee said the party was only filling a public need left by the Lebanese government's inability to provide sufficient health care for the region.

Along the roads of southern Lebanon, pictures of young men killed during the conflict appear on nearly every lamppost, bearing the Hezbollah emblem. Twisted Israeli army trucks are left at roadside shrines, yellow flags flapping atop them.

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)

In the stony hills outside Nabatiyah, a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad appears along the narrow road, a reminder of Syria's influence . One Western diplomat in Beirut called Syria "the traffic cop" that allows money and weapons to flow to Hezbollah. Despite broad ideological differences, Syria and Hezbollah share a common foe in Israel.

The Syrians "benefit from the availability of an armed resistance in Lebanon, and we benefit from their need for armed resistance," said Mohammad Raad, leader of the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, Hezbollah's 12-seat coalition in Lebanon's 128-member parliament. "But we are not fighting in the interest of others. We are fighting for our own cause."

Western diplomats and political analysts in Beirut estimated that Hezbollah received $200 million a year from Iran, which views the party as its bridge to the Arab world.

Raad said money from Iran came only through private charities to be used for health care, education and the support of war widows. Hezbollah's main sources of income, he said, are the party's investment portfolios and wealthy Shiites.

"It's indisputable that the electoral system in Lebanon is not a fair one," Raad said. "It's essential that this system be changed, but change in Lebanon is a very difficult challenge because there is no such thing as a Lebanese public opinion."

Many of Lebanon's religious parties are remnants of the militias that fought in its civil war. All have disarmed -- at least officially -- except Hezbollah. The party was allowed to keep its guns under somewhat ambiguous language in the postwar constitution -- a document adopted in 1991 and endorsed by the United States -- because of the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon at the time.

The Israeli army's presence at Shebaa Farms and the party's fighters who remain in Israeli prisons are Hezbollah's justification for its militancy along the border.

Last month Nasrallah, the party leader, announced that Hezbollah had breached Israeli airspace with a reconnaissance drone called the Mirsad-1.

Party leaders warned that the drone, whose name means Observer, could be used to bomb Israeli towns. Lebanon's defense minister attended an event for the announcement and joked that he wanted one for the Lebanese armed forces. Nasrallah replied that Hezbollah would provide one free of charge.

"The sooner they become part of the legitimate Lebanese armed forces, the better," said a Western diplomat in Beirut. "I believe in their right to bear arms and defend the country. But I'd feel more comfortable if they were doing so within the state security services."

Hezbollah draws its members almost entirely from Lebanon's rapidly growing Shiite population. But it is striving to attract broader support. It has been reaching into south Lebanon's teeming and violent Palestinian refugee camps, home to a mostly Sunni population whose youth still view Hezbollah's past guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation with awe.

"They don't give us money for nothing, and they want our people and cause," said Khaled Arif, the Palestine Liberation Organization's field coordinator for south Lebanon who is based in the notorious Ain Helweh camp, where Hezbollah has offered to improve the water system and build health clinics. "We won't sell them to Iran."

But Hezbollah is not the inclusive movement it contends that it is, at least not to the people living in its territory who are not Shiites. No Hezbollah banners fly in the village of Qlayia, a few miles west of here, where the Rizk family gathered in their stone house on a chilly afternoon to watch television. Like nearly all of the families in Qlayia, they are Maronite Christians.

Pierre Rizk, a middle school math teacher, praised Hezbollah for preventing Muslim reprisals against the region's Christians, many of whom worked inside Israel during the occupation, after the Israeli army pulled back. But he said the party had done little to counter the steep economic decline that followed.

His daughter Manal, 23, has been applying for every government job she hears about, so far without success, largely because she does not have party sponsorship essential in Lebanon's sectarian civil service system.

She was recently laughed out of the employment office at Beirut International Airport when she submitted her résumé, featuring a master's degree in psychology, for a position as a baggage inspector.

"Unless you are in line with them politically, no one will take care of you," she said.

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