March 10, 2005

Bush's Latest Shia Pet: Hezbollah!

Bush's Latest Shia Pet: Hezbollah!

"U.S. Called Ready to See Hezbollah in Lebanon Role" By STEVEN R. WEISMAN, NYT

After years of campaigning against Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim party in Lebanon, as a terrorist pariah, the Bush administration is grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese political mainstream, administration officials say.

The administration's shift was described by American, European and United Nations officials as a reluctant recognition that Hezbollah, besides having a militia and sponsoring attacks on Israelis, is an enormous political force in Lebanon that could block Western efforts to get Syria to withdraw its troops.

On Tuesday, Hezbollah showed its clout by sponsoring one of the biggest demonstrations of recent Lebanese history, bringing hundreds of thousands of largely Shiite supporters into central Beirut to support the party's alliance with Syria and, by extension, the presence in Lebanon of 14,000 Syrian troops.

Lebanon's political crisis deepened Wednesday when Parliament renominated the pro-Syrian prime minister nine days after he resigned under pressure from street demonstrations. If opposition leaders refuse to join his transitional government, tension over the rules for elections in May and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country will be high.

The United States and France sponsored a United Nations Security Council resolution last year calling for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon, and a special United Nations envoy, Terje Roed Larsen, is to press for the troop withdrawal. Officially, Mr. Larsen's mission is also to demand the disarmament of Hezbollah, but as a practical matter that objective has receded, various officials say.

"The main players are making Hezbollah a lower priority," said a diplomat who is closely tracking the negotiations. "There is a realization by France and the United States that if you tackle Hezbollah now, you array the Shiites against you. With elections coming in Lebanon, you don't want the entire Shiite community against you."

The new posture of the administration was described by its officials, who asked not to be identified because of longstanding American antipathy toward Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah has American blood on its hands," an administration official said, referring to such events as the truck bombing that killed more than 200 American marines in Beirut in 1983. "They are in the same category as Al Qaeda. The administration has an absolute aversion to admitting that Hezbollah has a role to play in Lebanon, but that is the path we're going down."

Lebanon has been by no means an autocracy since Syria ended the civil war in 1990, but pushing "Democracy!" in Lebanon will largely benefit Hezbollah, since the traditional Lebanese political system is severely gerrymandered against the Shiites (and in favor of the less anti-Israel groups, such as the Maronite Christians). Hezbollah only has one tenth of the seats in the current Lebanese assembly but they likely have a plurality among voters.

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