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Stark choice for militant Hizbullah

Syria announced a troop pullback in Lebanon beginning Monday. The anti-Israeli Hizbullah vowed Sunday to stay armed.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2005


Syria's stated intention to begin disengaging its military forces from this Mediterranean country poses the most serious challenge to the militant Shiite Hizbullah organization since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

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A Syrian withdrawal threatens to deprive Hizbullah of its Damascus-sanctioned political cover to pursue an aggressive anti-Israel agenda. "What is at stake is Hizbullah's future as a militia, as an armed force, and also as a pan-Islamic movement," says Samir Kassir, columnist for Lebanon's leading An Nahar newspaper.

The choices facing the powerful organization are stark. If it chooses to adapt to the new realities in Lebanon, it is likely to face the isolation and eventual dismantling of its military wing, the Islamic Resistance, which drove Israeli occupation forces from south Lebanon in May 2000 and is now deployed along Israel's northern border. The Islamic Resistance has about 300-400 full-time guerrilla fighters and several thousand reservists.

Although Hizbullah has an extensive social-welfare network and an important presence in the Lebanese parliament, the Islamic Resistance is its beating heart. Dissolution risks turning Hizbullah into just another - albeit respected - party jostling for influence in a fractious political arena.

But if Hizbullah continues to defend Syrian interests in Lebanon and insists on retaining the Islamic Resistance, it could find itself on a collision course with a future Lebanese government, and risk alienating its vital support among the Shiite community.

"Hizbullah is at a crossroads," says a European diplomat here. "The leadership is taking it day by day, but I hope Hizbullah chooses the democratic option. There is no need to bear arms anymore."

Hizbullah has been under scrutiny since the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, which sparked unprecedented public demonstrations in Beirut calling on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.

In a keynote address Sunday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, insisted that the Islamic Resistance is still required to defend Lebanon from potential Israeli aggression. "The resistance will not give up its arms ... because Lebanon needs the resistance to defend it," he told reporters after a meeting of loyalist parties.

Pulling back

On Saturday, following weeks of mounting pressure from Western as well as Arab nations, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced that Syria would move its 14,000 troops in Lebanon to the border, leaving it open as to when Syrian soldiers would completely withdraw. The defense minister said Sunday that a pullback would begin Monday.

Hizbullah has adopted a cautious policy of continuing to profess support for Syrian involvement in Lebanon while not criticizing the Lebanese opposition, calling instead for dialogue.

Sayyed Nasrallah continued that theme, saying "we are committed to peace and unity ... any breaches of security are forbidden ... if we have any differences we will resolve them in a civilized and democratic way."