JERUSALEM -- In a trial run for Israel's eventual withdrawal from Lebanon, an Israeli-backed militia announced yesterday that it is vacating a strategic enclave in southern Lebanon it has held for 14 years.
The pullback by the South Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy in the region, will leave the mostly Christian Jezzine pocket open for takeover by Lebanese government forces -- or by Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas who are waging a war of attrition against Israel. Israeli officials are watching closely to see which scenario unfolds.
Antoine Lahad, the 70-year-old former Lebanese general who commands the SLA, said his militiamen -- reeling from casualties and suffering from devastated morale -- would begin abandoning Jezzine today because it has become too dangerous.
They expect to complete the move within two weeks, he said. SLA forces have reportedly pulled out of some posts, removed weapons and dismantled fortifications.
In Jerusalem, Israel's defense minister, Moshe Arens, demanded that Lebanon -- and its master, Syria -- step in to protect the people of Jezzine.
Israel's incoming prime minister, Ehud Barak, has repeatedly promised to end Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon; what happens in Jezzine is likely to shape Barak's course of action.
Lahad announced the start of the Jezzine retreat at a news conference in Marjayoun, a Lebanese city in the so-called security zone that Israel has occupied since 1985 along Lebanon's southern border. Mountainous Jezzine lies outside the security zone to the north, but is under SLA control.
Lahad said SLA militiamen are leaving because they can no longer stanch the "slow death" of the enclave, which now has barely a tenth of its 1985 population of 40,000.
He called on Lebanese forces to occupy the positions his troops vacate and to guard the residents of Jezzine from retaliation by Hezbollah forces or others who consider the SLA and its followers collaborators with Israel.
Israel first occupied Lebanon more than 20 years ago and then established the 9-mile-deep "security zone" in 1985 to protect its northern border communities. Today, southern Lebanon is Israel's last active war front. Israeli warplanes routinely strafe suspected Hezbollah positions in the area -- as they did Sunday.
Yesterday, an Irish soldier serving with United Nations forces who monitor the border was killed and two others were wounded by mortar fire. A U.N. spokesman blamed the shelling on the SLA, firing apparently in response to an earlier Hezbollah attack.
Barak, elected May 17 and working to form a government, is interested in reviving peace talks with Syria as part of a security deal that would allow Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.