Fighting With Israel Deepens Lebanese Divisions Over Hezbollah

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Lebanon's prime minister all but promised on Saturday to rein in Hezbollah in an effort to stop Israel's pounding of his country. But any such move could prove hugely divisive in this state still rebuilding from civil war.

Some fear it would lead straight back there again. Others caution there's no guarantee the Western-backed government of Fuad Saniora could disarm Hezbollah even if it tried.

Overall, the renewed violence wracking the Mideast has simply deepened the longtime divide in Lebanon over Hezbollah's role. Many here admire it for being the sole group to fight against Israel. Others consider it to be a dangerous militia that executes Iran and Syria policies in Lebanon.

But even if the government proved willing to extend its power over all of the country — including the Hezbollah-dominated south — how to achieve this is unclear.

Though Lebanon's army of about 70,000 soldiers is nominally far superior in numbers to Hezbollah's guerrilla, many question whether it would have the capacity to disarm it.

The army has virtually no air force, and its troops lack the continuous guerrilla training that Hezbollah's fighters — estimated to over 6,000 — acquire from their clashes on Israel's northern border. Largely manned by Shiite Muslims, the army could also break up along sectarian lines, as it did during the 1975-90 civil war, if troops were required to forcibly disarm the Shiite militia.

Hezbollah has also become one of Lebanon's strongest political forces, with two Cabinet ministers, and 12 lawmakers in parliament.

As in everything else in this country, the split over Hezbollah mostly follows sectarian lines, with Shiites largely supporting the group and Sunnis, Christians and Druse mostly opposing it.

"Hezbollah has taken the country hostage. They have destroyed people's home and infrastructure," cried Mohammed Bazazo, a 50-year-old merchant in the predominantly Sunni southern port city of Sidon.

But Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiites, believed to be the country's largest sect, largely support the group.

The divisions have paralyzed the Lebanese Cabinet, which is dominated by politicians critical of Syria, the Hezbollah's longtime backer. Emergency sessions this week were torn by bickering over how to respond to Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers that provoked the Israeli assault.

"The government is helpless," said former President Amin Gemayel, a longtime critic of Hezbollah. "Hezbollah took a unilateral action, but its repercussions will affect the entire country."

His voice cracking with emotion, Saniora said there could be no sovereign state without the group's disarming.

"The government alone has the legitimate right to decide on matters of peace and war because it represents the will of the Lebanese people," Saniora said in an address to the nation.

He did not make any direct references to Hezbollah, but he was clearly referring to the group's kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers. The government has distanced itself from the kidnapping and refused to condone it.

Though some Lebanese complain about the Shiite guerrilla dragging them into a new bloodshed, many praise Hezbollah's increasing sophistication in its fight against Israel.

The guerrilla promised an all out war against the Jewish state, and has used better rockets to hit deeper into the country than ever before. It also made a surprise strike on a warship blockading Beirut that sent crowds cheering in the streets of the capital.

The heavy fighting since Wednesday has shown Hezbollah's sway in Lebanon.

The group is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. In Lebanon, however, it has grown popular for the social and educational work it provides across Shiite parts of the country, with medical clinics, a newspaper and a TV station.

Israel on Saturday repeated an old contention that Iran's Revolutionary Guards were in Lebanon helping the militia, a report denied by Hezbollah and dismissed by Tehran as false and "meaningless."

Hezbollah, which was founded in 1982 after Revolutionary Guards were sent to Lebanon during Israel's 1982 invasion of the country, is thought to receive weapons and an estimated $10 million-$20 million on monthly basis from Iran. But Iranian fighters have not been seen here Lebanon in the past 15 years.

Its fighters have fired more than 700 Katyusha rockets on Israeli towns and cities since Wednesday, killing four Israeli civilians and injuring more than 130.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to hit deep within Israel, including the coastal city of Haifa and beyond.

On Friday, the group aired an audiotape by Nasrallah just as its fighters struck an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast — showing that Hezbollah knows how to coordinate a dramatic media campaign.

But Israel's assault on Lebanon, which has killed more than 106 civilians in four days and sent thousands fleeing from the south, or the country altogether, could turn many more against Hezbollah.

A taxi driver kept up a tirade against the militia as he drove through the capital's near empty streets.

"Why did you do it now Sayyed Nasrallah?" he asked, refusing to give his name, in fear of repercussions. "Why now? Couldn't you have waited a couple of months? Just two months until the tourists had left? Is this resistance? Ruining your country?"