In Khiam, Lebanon

Armed With Iran's Millions, Fighters Turn To Rebuilding

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

KHIAM, Lebanon, Aug. 15 -- In military-style black shirt and pants, Abu Shaker had a gait that was a little light for someone in combat boots. He smiled through his red-tinted beard, as returning residents waved and shouted greetings. And he pointed with authority, guiding a bulldozer plowing the streets of this Shiite Muslim town, blocked by refuse from a month-long barrage of air raids and shelling.

For 34 days, Abu Shaker was a Hezbollah fighter. By 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, he had taken charge as a relief worker.

"We're going to work until we open all the streets in the city," he said, as the bulldozer thundered across a road.

He looked around at the town, nearly every house scarred. "Whatever the people need, we'll do it for them," he said.

A day after a cease-fire quieted the guns in Lebanon, Hezbollah opened another front in its struggle: rebuilding its state within a state in the poor southern suburbs of Beirut and the tattered villages of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Hundreds of activists fanned out across the country; in Khiam, at times, they outnumbered the residents. Acting on the orders of Hasan Nasrallah, the group's secretary general, they began clearing rubble, pulling bodies from collapsed homes, cataloguing damage house by house, securing truckloads of food and water, and preparing to provide tens of millions of dollars in compensation.

"We're waiting for Hezbollah to undo all this destruction," said Hussein Kalash, a fighter in Khiam for another Shiite movement, Amal. "Sayyid Hasan said he would compensate the people, so we're waiting to see his promises come true," he said, referring to Nasrallah with a religious honorific.

"We shared in the war," he added, "but now they have to pay for the peace."

More than simple reconstruction, the task before Hezbollah could decide the shape of postwar Lebanon. Nasrallah's order Monday to begin rebuilding -- without government coordination or approval -- poses one of the biggest tests for Lebanon's already weak government, which in the aftermath of the war has pledged to exercise its uncontested control all the way to the Israeli border. In just a day, the question has become: Can both the Lebanese state and Hezbollah wield authority in Lebanon?

Hezbollah activists here were respectful; they said they were only buttressing the government's role. Some residents, though, spoke in blunter terms, reflecting the popular support Hezbollah enjoys -- often more as guardian than militia.

"Sayyid Hasan will help us before our country does," said Mehdi Awada, a 25-year-old resident.

As he spoke, Um Hussein Tanaki sprang out of her damaged, four-story pink stone building. It was gutted, the furniture destroyed. "You work and work and work your whole life, and in the end, there's nothing. That's not a pity?" the 61-year-old mother of three said. Cars passed, Hezbollah's yellow banners sometimes flying from the windows, and she smiled. "This is my sacrifice."

Young men around her nodded their heads. "God protect Sayyid Hasan," she said.

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