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Hezbollah shows might in Lebanon, but faces limits
A Lebanese couple walks between razor wire in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, May 15, 2008. The situation in Lebanon slowly returned normal as Lebanon's U.S.-backed government reversed on Wednesday measures against Iran ally Hezbollah that set off the worst violence since the country's 1975-1990 civil war. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah has proven it can force Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government to cave in on key issues. But the Shiite militant group’s power is not absolute — the government is still in place and Hezbollah has lost support among the people by turning its guns on them.
    The power shift resulted from a week of street battles during which Hezbollah’s gunmen and Shiite allies defeated Sunni groups backing the government and seized much of Muslim west Beirut.
    At least 65 people were killed before the Cabinet gave in Wednesday and rescinded two anti-Hezbollah acts. Those measures had tried to remove the Beirut airport security chief for alleged Hezbollah ties and to declare illegal the group’s private telephone network.
    Even as Hezbollah takes its fighters and roadblocks off the streets, no one doubts it is a force to be reckoned with in Lebanon, militarily and politically. And, with no check on its communication system, it remains a threat to Israel — a huge concern for the West.
    Hezbollah has long had a dual role: as a guerrilla group glorified for its struggle against Israel, especially in the 2006 war, and as a political force backed by Syria and Iran that leads the opposition against the Western-backed government.
    Yet despite the group’s gains, the Cabinet has not been dislodged, and it even delayed for a few days before dropping the anti-Hezbollah measures.
    Perhaps as important, there is growing dismay among Lebanese that Hezbollah turned its firepower on fellow citizens last week. That emboldened Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to declare for the first time that Lebanon can no longer tolerate the group keeping its weapons unchecked.
    Hezbollah won admiration in 2006 for withstanding an air and ground offensive by Israel’s military — the first time an Arab force was able to fight the Israelis to a standstill.
    But many Lebanese say last week’s fighting broke a pledge by Hezbollah to keep its huge arsenal focused on Israel, and not its rivals at home.
    ‘‘Hezbollah has won the hostility of a large segment of the Lebanese,’’ said Abdullah Bouhabib, a former ambassador to Washington who heads the independent Issam Fares Center think tank.
    The group’s leaders are also constrained by the need to accommodate allies with roots in Lebanon’s many religious and ethnic communities, among them Christians, Sunnis, Druse and other Shiites.
    Hezbollah fighters refrained from taking on the government militarily or expanding the offensive, perhaps fearing some allies might not back them. They also may have feared pushing too far could bring them into conflict with the army, which stayed out of the street fighting.
    The generals have taken a neutral stance, worrying that getting involved might split the army along sectarian lines, as happened during Lebanon’s devastating 1970-95 civil war. But the army’s inaction drew strong criticism, and commanders could feel compelled to act if Hezbollah resorted to force again.
    Hezbollah’s political caution is evident in the relative lack of belligerent comments by its leaders after their victory.
    The deputy leader said Thursday that the group would ‘‘return things’’ to normal now that the government has reversed itself. Sheik Naim Kassem also insisted Hezbollah’s weapons ‘‘are to confront Israel,’’ not for use within Lebanon.
    The Hezbollah-led opposition also agreed to hold talks with the government on opening the way for parliament to elect a president, an Arab League mediator reported. Their squabbling over control of government policies has left the country without a head of state for six months.
    A cooling of tensions with its rivals would free Hezbollah to focus on a possible war with Israel. That is bad news for Israel and a source of deep concern for the West, which sees Iranian hands in Hezbollah’s stance toward Israel.
    Sam F. Ghattas, a correspondent based in Beirut, has reported on Lebanon for The Associated Press for 17 years.

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