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.
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.
On Dec. 1, the Hezbollah-led opposition began staging massive protests in central Beirut, forcing Saniora to live in his office in the Grand Serail, surrounded by security forces and barbed wire.
The opposition warned Monday that they would step up their anti-government protests if a mediation by the Arab League does not meet their demands for a national unity government. Saniora and his supporters have rejected Hezbollah's demands as a Syrian-backed coup.
At the State Department on Friday, spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged Hezbollah has flexed some "political muscle" by mobilizing street protests, but noted there is a vocal opposition to those protests. While Hezbollah does provide social services, he said that's not a sufficient basis for a modern state.
"Is that a stable foundation for a state or a people, in which your basic services are really funded by a state sponsor of terror ... who really can, at the snap of a finger, pull your country into a war with another country, without your consent?" McCormack asked.
Yet Nasrallah — for now — is considered by U.S. officials to be powerful and growing in stature. He has made calculated moves designed to maintain unity among supporters, many of whom are weary of fighting after the country's 15-year civil war. In contrast, Saniora's coalition has been in a fragile spot, with little agreement on how to deal with Hezbollah.
For Lebanese Hezbollah's opponents, there's an even more worrisome trend. As it builds strength at home, it is also serving as a role model to other Shiite groups in the region.
U.S. officials, including new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, recently disclosed that the group is training Shiite fighters in Iraq. U.S. officials say they have traveled in groups of 15 to 20 to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and to Beirut for training in the use of improvised explosive devices, mortars, sniper attacks and other operations common to combat in Iraq.
While some intelligence officials estimate that as many as 2,000 have received this training, other U.S. officials express doubt about such high figures.
Yet the officials agree that Hezbollah is interested in Iraq to support Iranian goals, including a return to Shiite dominance in Iraq after more than 1,300 years. The group also wants to convert its perceived military success this summer against Israel into a greater political role.
The leader of Iraq's most powerful and violent Shiite militia, Muqtada al-Sadr, is beginning to mirror Hezbollah, perhaps hoping for the same success.
According to the report from the high-level Iraq Study Group, "Several observers remarked to us that Sadr was following the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon: building a political party that controls basic services within the government and an armed militia outside of the government."