By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 14, 2006; A01
BEIRUT, July 13 -- The radical Shiite movement Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, hold an effective veto in Lebanese politics, and the group's military prowess has heartened its supporters at home and abroad in the Arab world. But that same force of arms has begun to endanger Hezbollah's long-term standing in a country where critics accuse it of dragging Lebanon into an unwinnable conflict the government neither chose nor wants to fight.
"To a certain Arab audience and Arab elite, Nasrallah is a champion, but the price is high," said Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament and leader of Lebanon's Druze community. "We are paying a high price."
The conflict will likely prove a turning point in the history of the movement, which was created with Iranian patronage in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It has since evolved from a terrorist organization blamed for two attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Marines, into a sprawling movement with a member and supporter in Lebanon's cabinet, a militia that effectively controls southern Lebanon, and an infrastructure that delivers welfare to its Shiite constituency, Lebanon's largest community.
But in the wake of Syria's withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005, the disarmament of Hezbollah has emerged as one of the foremost issues in Lebanese politics. Since the fighting with Israel started Wednesday, calls for Hezbollah to relinquish its weapons have gathered urgency. The violence began when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border incursion, followed by an Israeli attack on roads, bridges, power stations and airports.
Lebanese critics as well as allies of Hezbollah insist that the Israeli response was disproportionate. But at the same time, in meetings Thursday, Lebanese officials began to lay the groundwork for an extension of government control to southern Lebanon. Hezbollah largely controls southern Lebanon, where it has built up a network of schools, hospitals and charities.
"To declare war and to make military action must be a decision made by the state and not by a party," said Nabil de Freige, a parliament member. He belongs to the bloc headed by Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafiq, a former prime minister and wealthy businessman, was assassinated in 2005, setting off a sequence of events that forced the Syrian withdrawal. "It's a very simple equation: You have to be a state."
After a cabinet meeting Thursday, the government said it had a right and duty to extend its control over all Lebanese territory. Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said the statement marked a step toward the government reasserting itself.
Other government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, went further, calling it a first move in possibly sending the Lebanese army to the border, a U.N.-endorsed proposal that Hezbollah has rejected. The officials described the meeting as stormy and contentious but said both sides -- Hezbollah and its government critics -- were especially wary of public divisions at a time of crisis.
"It is becoming very clear that the state alone must bear responsibility for the country's foreign policy," said Samir Franjieh, a parliament member who is close to the Hariri bloc. "But our problem now is that Israel is taking things so far that if there is no help from the international community, the situation could get out of hand."
The fate of Hezbollah is at the center of Lebanon's sectarian complexity, now more pronounced than perhaps at any time since the 1975-90 civil war. Hezbollah's future is also tied up in regional politics dominated by Syria, Iran and Israel.
Along with Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, Hezbollah remains one of Syria's main allies in Lebanon. The governments of Syria and Iran provide Hezbollah with funding and arms, although the countries' influence is a matter of debate. Analysts here say Iranian influence has become ascendant following the Syrian pullout, though foreign policy in the two countries has so far largely overlapped. The United States renewed its call Thursday for those countries to intervene to get the two Israeli soldiers released.
"It's really time for everybody to acknowledge that these two states do have some measure of control over Hezbollah," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington. "And the international community has called upon them to exercise that control, to have these two individuals released."
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.