BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah fighters have pulled back since seizing parts of Lebanon's capital, but their brazen display has made one thing clear: A private army blamed for terrorist attacks on Western interests and dedicated to the destruction of Israel will be a fixture in this weakened country for a long time.
Lebanon is an ideal incubator for Hezbollah's military clout, just as Afghanistan served Al Qaeda. Lebanon's U.S.-funded military doesn't interfere with the thousands of rockets and missiles that militants are believed to have hidden in basements and bunkers throughout Shiite Muslim areas of the tiny country.
Hezbollah's refusal to discuss disarmament at talks with Lebanese factions in Qatar last week means it has formidable firepower to unleash at will. This could have wider implications, given Hezbollah's summer war with Israel two years ago, though some Lebanese suspect Hezbollah's main objectives include local power grabs and settling ethnic scores.
"Hezbollah's mask has dropped," said Ayman Kharma, a Sunni Muslim cleric whose fourth-floor apartment in the northern city of Tripoli was blasted during fighting this month with a militia allied to Hezbollah. "We were in favor of Hezbollah when it was fighting Israel. Now we see it from the inside."
Kharma was talking about the sectarian tone of the violence, with Shiite militants from Hezbollah targeting Sunnis tied to the government. He spoke in the blackened wreckage of what was his living room, littered with fragments of rocket-propelled grenades.
Hezbollah says its chief goal is to fight Israel, and its combat record — burnished by the 2006 war — has earned it respect throughout the Arab world. The attire of a Shiite fighter in the recent fighting in Lebanon testified to past and present conflicts: an Israeli helmet, green fatigues with a "U.S. Army" stamp, a black T-shirt and an American-made M4 carbine with a telescopic sight.
Witnesses say Hezbollah fighters used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but refrained from shelling parts of Beirut with mortars, which would have threatened civilians for minimal military gain.
The witnesses said militants handed out cell phone numbers to shopkeepers, telling them to call if anyone attacked their stores. Hashim Jaber, a former brigadier general in the Lebanese army, described many Hezbollah combatants as "grade C, grade B" operatives who acted like military policemen, supervising unruly fighters from allied militias.
Unlike Sunni Al Qaeda, Shiite Hezbollah is a social and political movement inspired by Iran's Islamic revolution. It has stepped back from the spectacular bombings, kidnappings and hijackings in which it was implicated in the 1980s and 1990s, but praises Palestinian suicide bombers and helps the Palestinian group Hamas, which has repeatedly fired rockets into Israel.
The United States lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group and denounces suspected aid by Iran and Syria. Washington also says Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda have taken advantage of instability to infiltrate Lebanon, where extremism breeds in Palestinian refugee camps.
Hezbollah says it doesn't have a foreign branch, but it is believed to have operatives and fundraisers as far afield as Latin America, and among other Shiite Muslim communities in Lebanon's diaspora of more than 10 million.
In 2006, Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets at Israel, and intelligence experts believe it now has a longer-range arsenal.
Gen. Amos Yadlin, Israel's chief of military intelligence, says Hezbollah maintains a "massive" presence close to Lebanon's southern border with Israel, including rockets, combat forces and observation points, in violation of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended the 2006 war. U.N. patrols in the area have not reported similar claims, though the U.N. has complained of illicit arms shipments to Hezbollah and Israeli overflights.
"If there is a future flare-up, Hezbollah will try to attack Israel not only from the area south of the Litani but from deep inside Lebanon as well," Yadlin said in an interview with Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
He said Hezbollah has munitions that "now cover large areas of Israel" in contrast to rockets that mostly hit only the north during the war. The comments match claims by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah has built a private telephone network to shield operatives from eavesdropping and be more resistant to aerial bombing. The government reversed a decision to ban the fiber-optic system after Hezbollah's fighters and allies overran parts of Beirut and other areas earlier this month, killing dozens in scenes reminiscent of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
A purported map of the phone network, released by a government ally, shows links that stretch from Hezbollah's base of Dahiyeh in the southern suburbs of Beirut, through the coastal cities of Sidon and Tyre to areas near the Israeli border and up the entire length of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon's interior. It follows Lebanon's sectarian divide, connecting virtually all Shiite Muslim areas but not Sunni Muslim and Christian areas.
Jaber, the former military commander, said the network was designed for military rather than commercial use, and should be included in any discussion of Hezbollah's weaponry.
The best Hezbollah fighters are believed to have trained in Iran, others at camps in northeast Lebanon, near Syria.
Shlomo Brom, former head of strategic planning on the Israeli military's general staff, said Israeli intelligence estimated that Hezbollah lost 500-600 fighters in the 2006 war.
"The only area where it is not clear whether they were able to reconstruct successfully since the war is the training of new cadres, because they had quite a large number of casualties," he said. "It is not easy to replace them, because those were people who were trained for the past 10 years."