BAALBEK, LEBANON -- "Lebanon is the child of Iran" is how Iranian physician Akbar Mahaki explains the many Iranian-sponsored services offered to the population of this dusty central Lebanese town.
A young nurse wearing a long white tunic sits idly at the Imam Khomeini Hospital's red and blue entrance and hums along with a tape recording of rhythmic Persian chants.
Beyond the main gate, a visitor encounters furtive looks by bearded Hezbollah (Party of God) militiamen and women shrouded in flowing black chadors who move quietly along the dimly lit corridors of this two-story medical facility. The place has an unnerving atmosphere of mystery about it.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards and affiliated welfare organizations such as the Martyr Foundation have been filling a void for the once-deprived and neglected Shiite Moslem community here in the Bekaa Valley, which skirts Lebanon's border with Syria.
The groups provide health and social services, as well as religious, recreational, educational and military activities that build strong loyalties to Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalism.
Before Lebanon's civil war began in 1975, Baalbek was a world-renowned cultural center whose Roman ruins served as the backdrop for annual international arts festivals. The town has since gained a reputation as a center for Iranian-inspired Islamic revolutionary activity.
"We originally came here to treat Iranian Revolutionary Guards," explains Mahaki, who runs the Imam Khomeini Hospital. "Medical care here should be the responsibility of the Lebanese state, the Red Cross and Red Crescent. But when we found the people here unattended and abandoned we decided to do something about it."
The Imam Khomeini Hospital is staffed by six Lebanese and two Iranian doctors, 60 nurses and two midwives. Across the street, colorful murals and Iranian flags flutter above an archway leading to the Khawwam Hotel and a headquarters for Iranian Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran Enghelab.
An estimated 500 Revolutionary Guards have been based in central and southern Lebanon since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Their activities include recruitment, military training and mobilization efforts that, among other objectives, help further the aims of Iran's 1978-79 Islamic revolution.
They are believed to be linked directly to the Iranian diplomatic mission in Damascus and Ambassador Mohammed Hassan Akhtari. The Pasdaran operate two military bases near Baalbek and reportedly have assisted in the preparation of suicide missions against Israeli soldiers and their allies in southern Lebanon.
While Syria originally welcomed and assisted in the deployment of the Revolutionary Guards here to support local resistance movements against Israel, recent tensions between Tehran and Damascus have prompted Syria to put tight restrictions on the Pasdaran's activities.
Last month, a number of guards reportedly began infiltrating southern Lebanon -- despite restrictions imposed by the Syrian Army on their freedom of movement following the abduction of American newsman Charles Glass in a Syrian-controlled area south of Beirut.
Syrian military action against the Revolutionary Guards, however, is unlikely in view of Syria's dependence on Iranian oil supplies as well as the tightly knit support network the Revolutionary Guards have established among their Lebanese militia allies.
Shiite security officials in Beirut disclosed that Iran is spending close to $5 million a month in Lebanon. The money is used not only to finance the Islamic Resistance Movement in southern Lebanon and the rapidly growing Hezbollah, but also to support underprivileged citizens and families of "martyred" militiamen.
In the absence of proper government institutions outside its major population centers, Lebanon is witnessing the creation of yet another ministate -- evidence of the government's failures.
Sheik Shawki Kanaan, one of the administrators of the Martyr Foundation in Baalbek, said 2 million Lebanese pounds (about $13,800) are spent in the Bekaa alone, where Iran supports about 400 families. Created by order of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1982, the institution subsidizes vocational learning centers and exhibits and organizes summer camps for children and adults and field trips to Islamic shrines in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. It also compensates families living in war-damaged houses in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.
Schools, pharmacies and bakeries have already been set up in Mashghara, a once-predominantly Christian town in the western Bekaa 38 miles southeast of Beirut.
"For the future, we are thinking of building factories and starting up dairy farms in the area," Kanaan said.
The benevolence of the Iranians seems not entirely altruistic. Tehran seems intent on creating solid and lasting bonds with the Lebanese -- particularly the nation's large Shiite population that dominates most of the Bekaa, southern Lebanon and west Beirut. Lebanon's Shiite community is estimated at 1.2 million.
"If there is any kind of resentment to their presence, it is covered up with money," commented a Lebanese Shiite politician from Baalbek.
"Their obsession is to weave themselves into the social fabric and the cultural and religious frame of reference of the Lebanese," said the western-educated son of a Lebanese official from Baalbek.
Murtada Najafi, the Shiite cleric of Mashghara, who hails from the area of Najaf in central Iraq and is a graduate of religious schools in Iran's Shiite holy city of Qom, described the nature of ties between Shiite Moslems and Iran as "emotional and belief-oriented." He noted that the Iranian role had taken precedence over that of the Shiite Amal militia, which is stongly allied with Syria.
"While the militias have to beg, Hezbollah has a state backing it with resources such as oil," the soft-spoken Najafi said.
The founder of the Amal movement, Musa Sadr, a leading Shiite cleric who disappeared in 1978 during a trip to Libya, "planted the Islamic movement on fertile ground, and they came to reap the fruits and harvest it," Najafi said. "Everything that is now the property of the Revolutionary Guards is derived from the Islamic movements that preceded them."
Najafi, Shiite security officials in Beirut and western intelligence sources said Lebanese men have been fighting on the Iranian war front against Iraq, and some of them have been taken prisoner.
"We are ready to defend Iran in the same way that we defend Lebanon and all Moslems wherever they are," said Mohammed Bjeiji, a Hezbollah official in Mashghara. "The Islamic nation is one, and Imam Khomeini is our leader. We are responsible for carrying out his orders across the world."
Except for a few Syrian checkpoints at the entrance of Mashghara and Baalbek, where the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah are most active, there are no outward signs of friction with the Syrian Army. Residents in both towns said the Iranians are being cautious in their movements, using shortcuts between villages to avoid Syrian roadblocks.
"They operate in total secrecy and in hidden ways. They are extremely disciplined in doing that," Sheik Najafi said.
Incensed by the challenge to its authority in Lebanon by Hezbollah, Syria recently dispatched Col. Ayyad Mahmoud, its former acting charge d'affaires in Tehran, to Beirut to assist in scrutinizing Iranian activity here. Last October, Mahmoud, the most senior Syrian diplomat in Tehran, was bundled by armed men into the back of an ambulance in the Iranian capital but freed unharmed a few days later.
Due to the tense relations between Damascus and Tehran and the delicacy of regional politics, the Syrians and Iranians in Lebanon seem to be avoiding one another. "They are like the wolf and the lamb; they cannot stay too close to one another," a Shiite security official explained.
Despite the contrast between a strong Syrian military presence and the encroaching activities of the Iranians here, it is not clear who will end up the wolf and who the lamb in Lebanon.