U.S.: Hezbollah Recovers, and Iran Helps

The Associated Press
Monday, December 18, 2006; 2:33 PM

WASHINGTON -- Money to help rebuild Hezbollah strongholds has been pouring into Lebanon, and arms may not be far behind, according to U.S. officials familiar with the efforts to restock everything from kitchen shelves to arsenals following this summer's conflict with Israel.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the latest U.S. intelligence, say the losses Hezbollah sustained during the 34-day war have been recouped with the help of Iran, Syria and private donors around the world. The result: an emboldened Hezbollah that has staged massive protests this month aimed at toppling the moderate government.

Hezbollah's supporters, particularly Iran, have been generous. "They were able to supply families with places to live and new furniture while they rebuilt their homes. It all has to be paid for, including the workers, and there is no problem doing it," said one of the officials.

The outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, told Congress this summer that Iran provides "perhaps up to $100 million a year or more" to Hezbollah. That aid flow has since increased, with U.S. officials now saying it could top $200 million annually, even before the surge that came after this summer's conflict.

Immediately after the fighting, Hezbollah started providing up to $12,000 to people whose homes were destroyed by Israeli bombs. Aid workers were seen in parts of Lebanon distributing crisp $100 bills out of a suitcase.

Much murkier is the influx of arms. One U.S. official said the porous border with Syria provides plenty of area where shipments can move. But other officials said the United States has a hard time quantifying what is coming across the sparsely guarded 233-mile line.

The U.S. official said Hezbollah is believed to be in the market for the C-802, an anti-ship cruise missile; the Israelis say it was used against one of its Navy warships in July. Small, portable anti-aircraft missiles called "MANPADS," including the SA-18, are also of interest to the group, as well as anti-tank guided missiles and improvised explosive devices. Small arms, already rampant in Lebanon, may also be moving in.

The official said Iran has access to the items on Hezbollah's wish list and remains the group's only reliable supplier. "It is a question of what Iran wants to replenish," said the official.

This comes despite an embargo approved by the United Nations Security Council in August, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah and bars the supply of weapons to Lebanon without approval of its central government.

The United States and many of its western allies consider the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah a terror group. But it also has political elements that control 14 seats in the 128-member Lebanese Parliament and provides social services, including schools and health care, in the areas of Lebanon that it dominates. The work legitimizes the organization to some governments, which allow fundraising and other activities to bolster Hezbollah.

The group has become a formidable power in Lebanon since its July-August conflict with Israel. That battle was sparked by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers, who have not been returned. Popular discontent for Hezbollah emerged following the fighting, but that has been muted with time and effort from the group's leadership.

Now, Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is calling for an end to Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government. His group and its pro-Syrian allies want more than a third of the seats on the Lebanese Cabinet, which would give them veto power on key decisions.

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