Lebanon Deal Boosts Hezbollah
Over Secret Fiber-Optic Network
May 22, 2008; Page A1
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In a stinging defeat for the U.S.-backed government of Lebanon, the Islamist group Hezbollah bolstered its political power in this volatile land on Israel's border.
Hezbollah reached a bargain with the weak Lebanese government that essentially gave the Islamic group veto power in a new government to be formed.
The deal comes two weeks after Hezbollah flashed its military might by seizing Beirut neighborhoods to protest efforts to rein it in. The trigger was unusual: Hezbollah was expanding a secret communications network, and the government wanted it dismantled. The ensuing fighting this month left 67 dead, in the worst internal strife since a long civil war ended in 1990.
Wednesday's agreement could have broad regional implications. It appeared to be the latest rebuke to the U.S.'s diplomatic efforts in the region to marginalize Syria and Iran, both big supporters of Hezbollah. The bargain met Hezbollah's longstanding demand for a political setup in which it could block any major legislation it opposed.
The Bush administration welcomed the agreement as an important tool for avoiding a potential civil war between Hezbollah and the pro-Western Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. "It's not perfect as a solution, but you have to weigh it against the alternative," said Assistant Secretary of State David Welch.
But a number of current and former administration officials viewed the deal as a major setback for U.S. interests in the region. "For the U.S.'s image, the fact that its leading ally had this type of setback" is disastrous, said David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I'm disturbed by this outcome."
Even as the bargain was being struck -- at talks in Doha, Qatar -- word came of separate, indirect peace discussions between Syria and Israel, the arch-foe with which Hezbollah fought a five-week war in 2006. (Please see related article.4)
The Doha deal broke a political stalemate in Lebanon and cleared the way to finally fill the long-vacant post of president. A compromise candidate, Army Gen. Michel Suleiman, is expected to fill it.
The catalyst for Lebanon's recent spasm was the government's discovery several months ago that Hezbollah was secretly expanding a network that could provide secure communications in times of battle. The network, the fight it sparked and Wednesday's resolution provide a dramatic illustration of Hezbollah's surging power in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Siniora ordered the network dismantled in early May. He also ordered the dismissal of an airport official his government labeled an ally of Hezbollah. After Hezbollah's violent response -- it seized neighborhoods, then handed them over to the neutral army -- the government was forced to rescind both orders last week.
|Lebanese release white balloons to celebrate a deal that would end a political stalemate and bolster the Islamist group Hezbollah.|
The drama began developing late last year when engineers working for Lebanon's telecommunications minister got an odd tip: Someone was mysteriously burying spools of fiber-optic cable near a village in southern Lebanon.
Then came a call from the mayor of Choueifat, an eastern suburb of the capital. "There are strange works, unknown to the municipality...on public and private lands," he said, according to Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, who spoke in an interview before the government backed down on May 14.
He sent engineers to investigate, and soon determined that Hezbollah had a network stretching for more than 200 miles -- in a nation only about 140 miles long. It had wireless transmitters, Mr. Hamadeh said, and redundancies so communications could continue even if part of it was damaged. The government reported the network to the United Nations, saying it consisted of "wired and wireless links to the telephone network of our neighbor, the Syrian Arab Republic" -- which dominated Lebanon for years before agreeing to a pullout in 2005.
The government long knew Hezbollah had a network of some sort, but thought it was limited and of little threat to central authority. But after the 2006 war, the government told the U.N., Hezbollah secretly expanded it under the guise of postwar reconstruction, burying cables beneath newly paved roads.
The work, the government added, was done with the "participation in the field" of the Iranian Headquarters for the Reconstruction of Lebanon, an Iranian agency that has claimed credit for hundreds of rebuilding projects since the 2006 war. It wasn't reachable for comment.
The telecom minister said some of the equipment was imported from "the West," declining to be specific. Lebanese officials also believe Iran supplied some.
For government officials critical of Hezbollah, the system was a clear sign of Hezbollah's worrisome ambitions. "This," declared Mr. Hamadeh, pointing to a hand-drawn map of the network, "is the takeover of Lebanon."
'No. 1 Weapon'
Since the government's public challenge to the network, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has left little doubt of its importance. In a news conference May 8, he defended it as a vital weapon against Israel, whose occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 helped give rise to Hezbollah.
Calling the system Hezbollah's "No. 1 weapon," the black-turbaned leader declared that "it is forbidden to touch [anything] linked to the networks, whether an engineer, a company or a mayor. Touching them is like touching me."
A spokesman for Hezbollah said the government's description of the network was aimed at creating a false threat to justify action against Hezbollah. The more rudimentary system that existed at the time of the 2006 war was considered vital in Hezbollah's military successes against Israel. Some independent analysts and diplomats worried that enhancement of the network meant Hezbollah is gearing up for another confrontation with Israel.
Hezbollah sees itself not only as a defender of Lebanon but as a vital link in the Iranian and Syrian alliance against the U.S. in the broader Middle East region. The U.S. has long listed the Shiite Islamic group as a terrorist organization, its critics accusing it of having carried out attacks such as the early-1980s bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon. But in the region, many view Hezbollah as an indispensable part of Lebanon's political structure.
Mr. Hamadeh, the telecom minister, outlined the events that led to the confrontation, speaking in an interview in the Grand Serail, a restored Turkish palace in the heart of Beirut -- now surrounded by coils of razor wire -- that serves as the headquarters for his government.
His engineers had discovered a Hezbollah fiber-optic cable in the heart of Beirut last year, he said. Confronted about it, Hezbollah reluctantly agreed to remove it from that area, and "things went quiet for a while." But then, when his engineers investigated the tips from Beirut suburbs and southern Lebanon, they found a greatly expanded Hezbollah system.
|Lebanon's parliament house speaker Nabih Berri (right) shakes hands with former president Amin Gemayel in Doha May 21, 2008. Rival Lebanese leaders reached a deal on Wednesday to end 18 months of political conflict that had pushed their country to the brink of a new civil war.|
On a hand-drawn map, Mr. Hamadeh traced the network's route: a line south from Beirut to the port of Tyre, then to myriad sites in the southern tip of Lebanon, then north through central Bekaa Valley. Off the main trunk, he sketched what he said were several new branches, reaching toward Christian areas in the north, pro-Syrian Palestinian bases in refugee camps and to areas east of Beirut controlled by the Druze, another sect. His final line reached to a tiny border town called Tufayel, where, he said, the secure network starts to connect with Syria.
Mr. Hamadeh said the government tried three weeks ago to negotiate secretly with Hezbollah about dismantling the network, working through the army intelligence chief and the head of internal security. He said Hezbollah confirmed the existence of the expanded system but "absolutely refused to dismantle it, directing threats against officials" involved. That response prompted the Siniora government, on May 6, to issue its now-withdrawn order to dismantle the network.
The government had also ordered removal of the security chief at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport, Brig. Gen. Wafiq Choucair. It accused him of being too close to Hezbollah, after an army patrol found a wireless security camera trained on a runway and the airport's VIP terminal that are used by government officials. The camera was hidden in a cargo container on adjacent property owned by Hezbollah's construction arm, according to government and military documents published by the Arabic daily An Nahar and corroborated by government officials.
In a memo dated May 2, Gen. Choucair said he had spoken to Hezbollah officials and been told the camera was just intended to guard against "trespassers and thieves" on the construction firm's property.
The government saw no choice but to order a crackdown on Hezbollah, Mr. Hamadeh indicated. "We knew that if we didn't do anything it would be a catastrophe -- the end of any authority of the state," he said in the interview before the government backed down. Hezbollah's violent response took officials by surprise. "We didn't know they would go that far," he said. The government reversed its orders on May 14.
A Unity Government
There followed six days of government-Hezbollah talks in Doha, overseen by the Arab League. The agreement announced Wednesday calls on Lebanon's Parliament to convene quickly to elect Gen. Suleiman as president. Lebanese politics are guided by a complex power-sharing agreement in which key posts are parceled out among the country's sects. The presidency goes to a Christian.
The agreement also calls for a unity government that allots 16 cabinet seats to the U.S.-backed government's ruling coalition, 11 seats to the opposition -- which Hezbollah leads -- and three assigned by the new president. The setup would effectively block any government move the opposition didn't support, because major legislation needs a two-thirds vote. The deal also paves the way for a new electoral law that, if approved, will divide Lebanon into new, smaller electoral districts, in an effort to better reflect the various sects' demographics.
The Bush administration had pushed Mr. Siniora's government for months to avoid making political concessions to Hezbollah. But in the end, said current and former administration officials, the U.S. and its allies didn't provide the government with the material support to withstand the military power Hezbollah amassed with Iranian and Syrian backing.
Longer term, the administration is voicing hope the agreement could give Beirut's pro-Western government space to reposition itself against Hezbollah. They hope support among Hezbollah's non-Shiite political allies, particularly the Christians, could evaporate ahead of Lebanese elections next year. The U.S. officials maintained that Hezbollah's use of force against Lebanese citizens in recent weeks has undercut its self-proclaimed mantle as a resistance movement battling Israel.
"The veil of resistance was ripped off this organization" in recent weeks, the State Department's Mr. Welch said. "Again, this is not the end of this crisis and Lebanon still has to go through implementing this agreement."
--Nada Raad in Beirut and Jay Solomon in Washington contributed to this article.
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