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Lebanon: Hizballah Appears Too Strong To Be Ignored In Equation

Hizballah, Lebanon's radical Shi'ite organization, showed its strength this week by staging a massive rally in Beirut in support of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. In light of such developments, the United States is reported to be reluctantly moving to accept Hizballah as a major political force. Branded by Washington as a terrorist organization, Hizballah nevertheless looks like it will be taken into account in U.S. efforts to get Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and to strengthen democracy in the country.

Prague, 10 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Hizballah (Party of God) has been an implacable opponent of Israel and the United States since it was created in 1982.

Formed primarily to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Shi'a-based and Iranian-backed Hizballah continues to seek the destruction of Israel. It is also blamed for the truck bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines at their barracks in Beirut in 1983.

But over the years, the party -- which has both military and political wings -- has taken on a socio-political role. That has ensured its solid popularity in Lebanon's Shi'a community, which makes up almost 40 percent of Lebanon's 3 million people.

Hizballah is a major provider of social services in Lebanon, operating schools, hospitals, and agricultural services. It has also become a successful political movement. It currently has 13 seats in the Lebanese parliament and plans for strong participation in May elections.

Regional analyst Turi Munthe of the London-based Royal United Services Institute said the rally on 8 March in Beirut shows the grip Hizballah has on Lebanon. "What this enormous rally -- enormous, much, much bigger than any of the opposition rallies -- has told the world is that Lebanon is a far more fractured place than everybody had hoped," he said.

The rally came after similar -- but much smaller -- protests were held by Lebanese opposition political parties, who are calling for a Syrian withdrawal. Syria has had a strong military and intelligence presence in Lebanon for the last 30 years. Demands that its troops leave have multiplied since last month's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- who opposed the Syrian presence.

The United States views Hizballah as a terrorist organization and recently sought to have its European allies adopt that same definition. But France resisted the move, and a report from Washington says the administration of President George W. Bush is redefining its own position.

Steven Weisman of "The New York Times" writes in today's edition: "The United States has basically accepted the French view, echoed by others in Europe, that with Hizballah emerging as such a force in a very fractured Lebanon, it is dangerous to antagonize it right now, and wiser to encourage the party to run candidates in Lebanese elections."

Weisman quotes a French official as saying this could be the turning point at which Hizballah sheds its terrorist origins and concentrates solely on politics.

Analyst Turi Munthe also says the West must let Lebanon come to grips with its own problems. "It is going to have to let Lebanon work out what to do with this organization [Hizballah], which the West, the United States, doesn't really like, but which is probably the biggest, as well as the most well-organized, political party in Lebanon."

Munthe suggests that Hizballah is now capable of claiming high parliamentary positions, such as speaker of the house, a post which until recently was held by Nabih Berri, the head of the secular Shi'ite movement Amal.

He believes such a move would mark a maturing of the situation. Hizballah could integrate into Lebanon's political life and develop a stake in the system. "Most people with a knowledge of the region think that is a good thing," Munthe said. "It helps unify Lebanon. It helps pull all the different active political partners to the same table. And what it will do is help unify the state by pulling in powerful organizations and making them sit down at a parliamentary table. So this has to be a good thing. But it's going to take a lot of time, and it's going to take a lot of negotiation."

As long as the United States continues to regard Hizballah as a terrorist organization, however, it will be difficult for the party to enter the political mainstream.

But Reinoud Leenders, an analyst in Beirut with the International Crisis Group, suggests Washington could compromise, even on this point, for the sake of consolidating democracy in Lebanon. "For example, it would be helpful if the United States administration could make -- perhaps behind the scenes, maybe not in public -- could give assurances that it will not go after Hizballah on the basis of the allegations it has against Hizballah for its terror activities in the 1980s," Leenders said.

On the other side, Leenders said Hizballah itself is not ready for normalization, in that all its activities are still placed within the context of its resistance to Israel.