Lebanon Sending Troops Into South

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By Edward Cody and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 17, 2006

BEIRUT, Aug. 16 -- Breaking an impasse, the Lebanese government on Wednesday ordered army troops to deploy across southern Lebanon under a compromise arrangement that allows the Hezbollah militia to retain some of its arms caches near the border with Israel.

Military authorities said as many as 15,000 troops would begin taking up positions in devastated southern villages, seeking to defuse a threat to the U.N. cease-fire that went into effect Monday morning after 33 days of warfare between Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli military.

[Early Thursday, the Israeli army began handing over positions to the United Nations, stepping up its withdrawal from southern Lebanon, according to the Associated Press. Hours later, Lebanon's army moved south and began deploying below the Litani River, the AP reported, citing a senior military official.]

At the United Nations in New York on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged Secretary General Kofi Annan to ensure the complete disarmament of Hezbollah and to prevent it from being rearmed by Iran and Syria.

This is a "moment of truth" for the international community, she said. The world cannot "allow Hezbollah to rise again and threaten the future of the region."

Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Muslim movement, had refused to disarm and withdraw its fighters as long as Israeli troops remained on Lebanese soil. That stand risked undercutting the cease-fire accord, because the Lebanese military had declared it would deploy in the border hills only if Hezbollah fighters and weapons were pulled back. And without the Lebanese army to join U.N. forces along the border, Israeli officials said, they would not order the remaining Israeli soldiers to return home.

Lebanese political leaders tried to overcome the standoff with a compromise whose contours remained indistinct.

The government said in a statement that only the army would be allowed to carry weapons in the area. "There will be no authority or weapons besides those of the state," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said in explaining the decision. But the declaration skipped over the question of whether Hezbollah's weapons, many of them hidden underground, had to be removed or destroyed. Aridi said there would be no confrontation with Hezbollah fighters, who in any case do not carry weapons except in battle and often live in the border villages.

Hezbollah welcomed the army deployment and its ministers voted with the cabinet majority. But political sources involved in the decision said Hezbollah did so on condition that the army pledge not to look closely at whether all of the militia's armaments and missile stores were carried out of the border zone.

The jockeying over postwar arrangements reflected Hezbollah's concern about the Israeli troops still manning hilltop observer posts inside Lebanon. But it also betrayed increased sectarian tensions within Lebanon's fractured leadership, according to a number of officials participating in sometimes angry discussions.

Hezbollah, widely seen here as a victor in the month-long war, was reluctant to cede complete military control over south Lebanon to the army, which stood by as Hezbollah militiamen battled Israeli forces. On the other side, some Lebanese politicians, particularly Maronite Christians, were eager to get started on disarming Hezbollah, not only in the border zone but in the entire country. In a sign of the postwar balance of power, they did not prevail.

Hezbollah asserted itself politically as soon as the cease-fire began. Fighters put down their guns and turned into relief organizers, and the group immediately started handing out money to families for reconstructing their destroyed homes. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was outraged to see the government get outstripped in such a visible way, according to a political official who saw his display of anger.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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