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Hezbollah Emerges in Forefront of Power in Lebanon

Recent Show of Force Carries Shiite Group To Forefront of Power

Posters of slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri with son Saad hang over a street in Beirut's Tariq Jdeideh district.
Posters of slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri with son Saad hang over a street in Beirut's Tariq Jdeideh district. (By Nasser Nasser -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 2008; Page A16

BEIRUT -- Time haunts Lebanon.

At the entrance to Hamra, once the cosmopolitan heart of the capital, a billboard reads 1,188, the number of days since former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in 2005, plunging the country into a crisis that persists today. A mile or so away, another marker stands frozen at one year since Hezbollah and its allies erected a tent city, occupying Beirut's tony downtown. No one has updated it for the past 168 days.

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But in the span of just eight days, some of the most tumultuous since the end of the civil war in 1990, the Shiite Muslim movement has refigured, both through its own actions and the repercussions that ensued, the arithmetic of politics in a country once hailed as a centerpiece of the Bush administration's now-tattered vision of a new Middle East.

Hezbollah today stands unquestioned as the single most powerful force in Lebanon. By routing government-allied militiamen in hours last week, as the army stood by, it proved it can occupy Beirut at will. Its show of strength forced the government into a humiliating retreat from decisions that targeted the group. And the group itself has ensured that the independence of its sprawling military, political and social infrastructure -- deemed a state within a state by its opponents -- will remain untouched for the foreseeable future.

By doing so, Hezbollah, once a shadowy, Iranian-inspired band born in the civil war, has decided a question that has divided Lebanon since Hariri's death: whether it would embrace a culture of accommodation with Israel, as a mercantile Mediterranean entrepot, or one of confrontation that Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons exalt.

"In this war, over a span of a few days, Hezbollah was able to translate a minor military victory into a major political achievement. It has succeeded in breaking the deadlock and achieving the aims the opposition has been calling for for two years," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an analyst at the Beirut Center for Research and Information.

But the new calculus in Lebanon, where tension is combustible and diversity is claustrophobic, may prove that Hezbollah's victory was Pyrrhic, as it inherits a country whose sectarian and political contradictions suggest another civil war ahead.

Even its supporters cringed at the sight of Shiite militiamen sipping coffee at Starbucks, their rocket-propelled grenade launcher resting in a chair. Tension between Sunnis and Shiites echoes the sectarian divide in Iraq. And across Lebanon, a crisis that remains unresolved even now has inspired revulsion in a country that has only rarely been a state over its short, often nasty, usually brutish history.

"The old Lebanon cannot be at all rebuilt or mended the way it was," said Assem Salam, an 83-year-old architect and scion of one of Beirut's most prominent Sunni families. "It's become more and more difficult to piece Lebanon back the way it was."

"I'm very worried," he said. He paused, smoking a cigar, then repeated the words.

A Cost to Its Image

Yahya Thibyan, a member of Lebanon's small Druze community, populating the Chouf Mountains outside Beirut, said scouts had borrowed his Russian-made telescope to watch for the arrival of Hezbollah's fighters. At 7:30 p.m. last Sunday, he said, they came.

Hezbollah and its allied militiamen had already briefly occupied predominantly Muslim West Beirut, cutting off the airport and seaport. The effective surrender of their opponents illustrated the new balance of power in the capital. Within days, the government repealed decisions aimed at Hezbollah's telecommunications network and reassigned the chief of security at the Beirut airport, a Hezbollah ally. A day later, government supporters agreed to a dialogue in Doha, Qatar, almost completely on Hezbollah's terms, to decide on a cabinet, a law for parliamentary elections and a president.

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