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Friday, August 18, 2006

ANALYSIS: A new 'Mini-Iran' is emerging in southern Lebanon

Thursday was supposedly a historic day in Lebanon. For the first time in 30 years, the Lebanese Army deployed south of the Litani River. This time, too, as was expected, the civilians threw rice at yet another military force.

But, as the leading Lebanese officer on the scene read out the unit's orders, the real picture emerged: "The army will deploy on the wounded Lebanese land alongside the men of the resistance."

In other words: The Lebanese Army has no plans to drive Hezbollah out of the South or to confront them.

Lebanon's president and commander in chief of the army, Emile Lahoud, made it clear on Wednesday that Hezbollah would not be disarmed, not even in the area south of the Litani River. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah may have promised that his men will not carry their arms openly but they could rebuild their bunkers and fill them up with rockets in preparation for the next confrontation in the future.

Meanwhile, the deployment of the multinational force is being delayed, and France is in no rush to send many soldiers. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed a week ago, is already on the path to becoming meaningless. While the Americans are declaring that the new forces in southern Lebanon will not allow Hezbollah to resume their positions along the border, Nasrallah is proving them wrong. His forces are patroling without hindrance in the villages of southern Lebanon (some of them not having left during the fighting); they are recording the Israel Defense Forces activities, and are giving interviews, while armed, to Arab television stations.

These developments are worrisome to the other religious groups in Lebanon that fear an Iranian-Syrian takeover in the South. Walid Jumblatt, Sa'ad al-Din Hariri and others sharply criticized Syrian President Bashar Assad for his efforts to intervene in domestic Lebanese politics. But as far as they are concerned, the real threat stems from Hezbollah's plans to reconstruct southern Lebanon, using billions of Iranian dollars that are meant to further establish the organization in the country by pushing aside the government organs.

It is not surprising therefore that there are celebrations in Tehran: Thursday, a public transport company there announced a day of free travel in the Iranian capital to celebrate Hezbollah's victory over Israel. In the wake of the Israeli invasion, it turns out that the regime of the Ayatollahs is on the verge of witnessing the realization of its dream for a "mini-Iran" in southern Lebanon.

It turns out that the political and military echelons in Israel were no less concerned than Hezbollah over the war of perceptions. Ministers recall that Olmert's aides joked about the possibility that he would make a victory speech in Bint Jbail, the site of Nasrallah's speech on Israel's spider web in May 2000. The Shin Bet security service's VIP protection detail would have never authorized this, but the mere fact that it was discussed is an indication of how surrealistic the conversations became among decision makers.

The IDF carried out three operations in Bint Jbail during the war, and did not conquer it because of its sprawling urban character. The public are not alone in not understanding the army's plans; the officers are hard pressed to comprehend them too.

During the war, Olmert bypassed Defense Minister Amir Peretz on a number of occasions and worked directly with Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. While relations became frayed, no one in the cabinet or the General Staff challenged their decisions.

Since the passing of the favorable resolution, Israel is having to withdraw from the territory it has occupied, following heavy losses; but Hezbollah continues to hold the ground and maintain that it won.

By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
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