Truce holds as politics heat

Debates on U.N. force, disarming Hezbollah

August 16, 2006|By BORZOU DARAGAHI AND LAURA KING | BORZOU DARAGAHI AND LAURA KING,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A two-day calm held in Lebanon and northern Israel as political leaders scrambled yesterday to resolve conflicting domestic and international demands on how - and even whether - to disarm Hezbollah in an attempt to make the cease-fire permanent.

Leaders of Hezbollah, which shares power in the Lebanese government, remained adamant that quick disarmament was out of the question.

Signs of discord emerged yesterday when Lebanese Cabinet members for the second time delayed a critical meeting to discuss a U.S.-backed cease-fire deal.

In Israel, sharp recriminations were directed at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, which had vowed to rid southern Lebanon of Hezbollah during a 34-day bombardment and siege that began July 12, when guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight.

The Israeli military said its forces killed three suspected Hezbollah fighters in two separate incidents yesterday, but its soldiers, at one point numbering up to 30,000, continued to trickle out of southern Lebanon.

Displaced Lebanese flooded into their bombed-out villages.

Israeli forces will begin handing over positions to 2,000 United Nations troops today. The transfer is part of what a U.N. official called the first stage of returning to Lebanese control an area long under the control of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, political party and social organization that has long controlled stretches of southern and central Lebanon.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff, said the Israeli pullout could be complete within seven to 10 days, around the time U.N. officials expect a second influx of international troops.

But questions remain as to whether the force would meet U.S. and Israeli interpretations of the U.N. cease-fire resolution approved last week.

U.N. officials in New York continued to haggle yesterday over the mandate and operational rules of the international troops in southern Lebanon, including whether they would have the ability to detain or fire upon suspected Hezbollah fighters engaged in warfare or gun-running.

Lebanese and Israeli government leaders also face political fissures that have erupted during and after the conflict. With the rubble still smoldering, Lebanon confronts the dual tasks of rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and solidifying a shaky political consensus among the country's fractious religious groups.

Though its strongholds in southern Beirut and Lebanon have been destroyed in the Israeli bombing campaign, Hezbollah has emerged politically stronger among Lebanon's Shiite plurality as well as some Christians, Sunnis and Druse angered by the scale of the Israeli offensive and impressed by the militia's battlefield successes.

Few Lebanese appear to be in any mood to talk about dismantling a group that inflicted pain on a longtime enemy.

"Hezbollah, in my opinion, will not disarm; it will rearm," said Abdo Saad, director for the Beirut Center for Research and Information, a think tank.

Hezbollah officials, emerging from hiding, denounced talk of disarmament while Israeli troops remain in the country and while bodies remain buried under crushed buildings in neighborhoods devastated by war.

"Disarmament is not on the table even," said Hassan Fadlallah, a member of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc. "It's outside of the discussion."

But others disagreed, accusing Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, of defying Lebanese sovereignty and a long-standing U.N. resolution calling for the disbanding of militias.

Members of Olmert's government have sought to put the best face on the war's inconclusive outcome. Defense Minister Amir Peretz suggested yesterday that the conflict could spur a diplomatic opening with Syria, with which Israel has technically been in a state of war since seizing the Golan Heights in 1967.

Borzou Daragahi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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