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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Druze Leader: Iran testing Israeli military, Syria reasserting influence

The New York Sun

BY AARON KLEIN - Special to the Sun

JERUSALEM — Tehran is using Hezbollah's confrontation with the Jewish state to test its weapons capabilities and to observe Israeli military tactics, Lebanon's Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, said yesterday.

Mr. Jumblatt said he fears Syria will take advantage of the growing crisis in Lebanon to reassert its influence in the country and convince the international community that Syrian domination of Lebanon is crucial to the stability of the Middle East.

He warned Damascus might initiate a wave of terror in Lebanon following Israel's military campaign there to destabilize the country further, perhaps by assassinating the Lebanese prime minister.

"Iran is bringing in [to Lebanon] sophisticated weaponry. The Iranians are actually experimenting with different kinds of missiles in Lebanon by shooting them at the Israelis. Iran is using this violence to test certain of [Israel's] abilities,"Mr. Jumblatt, the head of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party and largely considered the most prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese politician, said.

International leaders have accused Iran of supplying Hezbollah with thousands of rockets, which the terror group has launched over the past three weeks into heavily populated areas in northern Israel, including the country's third largest city, Haifa. In many of its attacks on Israel, Hezbollah has used Katyusha rockets that Israeli officials say were upgraded by Iran. Hezbollah also has Iranian Zalzel missiles, which have a range about 125 miles, putting Tel Aviv within reach.

Earlier this month, an Iranian Silkworm C–802 radar-guided anti-ship cruise missile struck an Israeli naval vessel, killing four soldiers. It was the first time the missile had been used in the war with Israel. Military officials here say the Israeli ship's radar system was not calibrated to detect the Silkworm, which is equipped with an advanced anti-tracking system.

Mr. Jumblatt said he is worried that Syria might try to regain control of Lebanon following Israel's military campaign. "Syria will likely try to tell the world, ‘Look, see, since we left Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution and the forces in Lebanon that got our military out through popular support, those forces are not able to control Lebanon. While we were in control, Lebanon was a safe place. Now it's not. We need to come back in,'" he said.

"I would not be surprised if they even try to wiggle their way into a deal by convincing the Americans that Syrian influence in Lebanon will stabilize the region," Mr. Jumblatt said.

Syria originally sent forces into Lebanon in 1976 during the Lebanese civil war. It occupied the country militarily until 2005, when its troops withdrew under intense international pressure following the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, for which Damascus was widely blamed.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, led by Mr. Jumblatt and other anti-Syrian politicians, staged protests in February 2005 known as the "Cedar Revolution," demanding freedom from Damascus.

"I would not be surprised if the Syrians try to overthrow our government and assassinate [Prime Minister] Siniora," Mr. Jumblatt said. "[President] Assad made comments last month about Al Qaeda infiltrating Lebanon. Now Assad can send into our country the same extremists he has been sending into Iraq to blow themselves up and wreak havoc here, and blame it on Al Qaeda. No one can prevent him from doing this."

Asked if he feared another full-scale Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, Mr. Jumblatt said, "Another? In truth, the Syrians never left Lebanon. They triggered this war through their proxy, Hezbollah. They continue to hold us hostage."

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