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Attacks Could Erode Faction's Support

Few dispute Syria's influence over Hezbollah. But some experts questioned whether Syria, isolated by the United States and suspected by many in Lebanon of having a role in Hariri's assassination, actually ordered the operation against Israel.

"I don't think that Syria is in a position to assume the consequences of such an attack or order such an operation," said Walid Charara, an author and expert on the movement. "That said, Syria maintains relations of consultation with Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which enjoy a large scope of autonomy of action."

Jumblatt, an outspoken opponent of Syria, went further, suggesting Damascus ordered the operation.

"They don't make independent decisions," he said. "Lebanon is being squeezed on one side from the Israelis and on the other side by the Iranians and the Syrians through proxy. Unfortunately, now Lebanon is a battleground."

Hezbollah appeared at a low point after the Syrian withdrawal, but over the past few months, analysts say, it has shored up its standing in politics here. In national reconciliation talks that have dragged on for months, the group effectively blocked negotiations over its weapons. This year, it entered into an alliance with the country's most popular Christian leader, Michel Aoun. In Lebanon there is a widely held perception that U.S. pressure on Syria has abated, while a U.N. investigation into Hariri's death has lost momentum.

At a news conference Wednesday, Nasrallah struck an assured pose, at one point joking with journalists who asked about Israeli threats to escalate its attacks in an attempt to secure the release of its soldiers.

"Of course, they are going to say that. They think we are going to return the two prisoners, apologize and even more?" said Nasrallah, wearing his traditional black turban. He laughed. "What world do they live in?"

Given the country's sectarian divisions, politics often have to work by consensus. Because Hezbollah is the most powerful representative of Shiites, Lebanon's government could not think of alienating such a crucial constituency. Since the fighting began, officials have gone to great lengths to guarantee at least a public show of unity. And even critics such as Jumblatt say the prospect of the group's disarmament -- a requirement under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 -- is almost impossible.

"We don't have the means to disarm Hezbollah, and we don't want to have a civil war here," he said.

Since the fighting erupted, opinions have broken along largely sectarian lines. Hezbollah's supporters in south Beirut and southern Lebanon greeted the attack with jubilation: Residents near a destroyed bridge handed out free orange juice to passersby, women threw rice on cars, and motorists careered through the streets flying the group's yellow banner.

Hezbollah's ideology merges Arab nationalism, Islamic revivalism and a powerful historical narrative of Shiite disenfranchisement, which is especially pronounced in Lebanon, where Shiites were once casually referred to as the deprived. Along the rocky wadis, or dry riverbeds, of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's celebration of Shiite empowerment is often hailed by the group's most loyal supporters, sometimes more so than its schools, clinics, hospitals, orphanages and foundations for families of its slain fighters.

"They consider Hezbollah terrorist. We consider it sacred. We consider it and its weapons sacred," said Mohammed Awadeh, a 27-year-old shopping in a stationery store in the southern town of Nabatiyeh.

On the road there, as in the southern suburbs, banners pronounced the theme: "The weapons which liberated our land are sacred weapons." Another banner: "With the resistance, we liberate our land. With the resistance, we protect ourselves."

Referring to Nasrallah, Aoun Aoun, a resident of Nabatiyeh, said, "Sayyed Hasan is the only man who promises and delivers."

Nasrallah, as an individual, probably enjoys more support in Lebanon than his movement does. While Sunni Muslims and Christians in Lebanon have worried about the repercussions of the fighting, they rarely criticize Nasrallah himself. But there was anger in the streets of Beirut's Ashrafiyeh district over fighting that has debilitated infrastructure built since the civil war.

"I'll tell you something: Hasan Nasrallah as a person is clever, very clever. You can't say he's not, but the path he chose is completely wrong," said Rami Fouad, a 22-year-old resident sitting with friends at Dunkin' Donuts. "It's not right to do it this way. Nothing will come by force. Who's going to pay for all this? Is Hezbollah going to bring the money from Iran?"

Across from him was a friend who had fled Marjayoun in southern Lebanon in the morning, making his way to the relative safety of Beirut. "Is it right? Should he be thrown out of his home?" asked another friend, David Rahbani.

Special correspondents Alia Ibrahim and Lynn Maalouf in Beirut contributed to this report.

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