In Mideast elections, militants gain

Both Hamas and Hizbullah, deemed terror groups by the US, are making political gains in their newly democratic regions.

The electoral successes of Hamas and Hizbullah has the Bush administration contemplating the previously unthinkable: dealing with those it deems terrorists.

The militant Palestinian group Hamas made significant gains in local elections in January. And many suspect they would have won this summer's legislative vote had it not been postponed this week. In Lebanon, Hizbullah flexed its political muscle on Sunday when a slate of candidates it heads swept the polls in the south of the country, making the organization a major force in the new government.

Though US officials remain publicly committed to not dealing with terrorists, the shifting political landscape of the Middle East may give the US and its allies few other options.

President Bush's conviction that democracy is the answer to the region's ills makes it difficult to ignore the winners of legitimate contests. But the rise of groups listed by the US State Department as terrorists will test just how far the US is willing to push its democracy agenda.

"First of all we have to accept that Hamas is going to be the principal power in Gaza when Israel pulls out ... and Hizbullah is a major political factor in Lebanon,'' says Emad Gad, a political scientist at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "So, yes, engagement with Hamas and Hizbullah is important, but it's complicated and difficult because they're still armed."

Diplomats in Washington and the Middle East say evidence that these groups are popular with newly empowered voters is pushing the Bush administration toward a tentative willingness to work with Hamas and Hizbullah.

But the US has not backed away from its tough stance against both groups. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan reiterated Monday US demands that the "terrorist organization" Hizbullah disarm. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also came under pressure on his recent US visit to disarm Hamas.

But analysts say Bush seems to have a conviction about the transformational potential of democracy that makes almost everyone redeemable, perhaps a consequence of his own religious transformation as a born-again Christian.

Whether these groups will change is uncertain. In Lebanon, the pro-Syrian Hizbullah's showing at the polls has strengthened its ability to resist US and United Nations pressure to disarm. The group established its popularity in the Shiite south of the country as a resistance movement against the Israeli occupation that ended in 2000.

Even Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafik, was assassinated in February and is seen as the likely choice as the country's next prime minister, says he'll bring Hizbullah into a ruling coalition.

"Hariri needs [Hizbollah's] votes in parliament to make up the kind of majority he wants,'' says Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Mr. Lang worries that Islamist groups who he says are ultimately undemocratic will rise to power as a consequence of US policy in the region.

"Hizbullah has certainly been strengthened by what the [Bush] administration is doing ... and you can argue that our pressure on Abbas has made him look foolish and weak in the eyes of Palestinians and strengthened Hamas's hand."

It's also hard to see Hamas disarming soon, though this is a key demand of both Israel and the US. The Palestinians' own ruling Fatah movement, led by Mr. Abbas, has sought to bring the welter of Palestinian militias and security organizations under unified command, but with limited success so far.

Facing a probable landslide for Hamas, Abbas postponed a Gaza election scheduled for next month to try to shore up support for his party, which is highly fractionalized and viewed by many Palestinians as corrupt and incompetent. Hamas's surging popularity is largely due to voters' hopes that it will prove a more honest manager than Fatah.

Even Israel is adjusting to the new political reality. Last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom argued that Hamas can't be considered a legitimate political party until it disarms the military wing responsible for suicide bombings against Israelis.

But what appeared to be a reiteration of Israel's policy actually reflected a tentative relationship from afar with Hamas, says Hillel Frisch, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. "As negative as it may sound ... it's the beginning of a negotiation. It's getting Hamas on board."

Wajih Nazzel, the elected Hamas mayor in the West Bank city of Qalqilya who's currently in an Israel jail, says his administration is willing to coordinate with Israeli army on humanitarian and civilian issues of day-to-day importance to residents.

"We will deal with the Israelis on the services level, not on the peace process level," he said in a phone interview from his jail cell. "There is no legal or religious factor that forbids us. We will engage in anything that helps the people even if it means talking to Israel."

Still, many in the region remain skeptical that democracy will lead Hamas to abandon violence.

"You ask any Hamas activist if the 1967 borders are acceptable as the basis for a settlement with Israel and they say that would just be a step on the road to liberating all Palestinian land,'' says Mr. Gad, of the Al Ahram Center, which is partially funded by the Egyptian government.

"No Islamic party deals with democracy according to a Western understanding. They will use democratic means to get power, but after that they will impose Islamic law, and change the institutions so they will always stay there."

Staff writer Howard LaFranchi in Washington contributed to this report.

Bullets and Ballots? Two Mideast Groups in transition

Hamas

• Origins: Palestinian group grew out of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in late 1960s.

• Mission: Its charter says it will destroy Israel and replace the Palestinian Authority with an Islamist state.

• Terrorist acts: More than 350 attacks on Israeli targets since 1993.

• Community role: Provides Palestinians in Gaza with schools, hospitals, soup kitchens - even sports leagues.

• Ballot box success: Hamas has become a popular Palestinian political party. It won 77 out of 118 seats in 10 council elections held in Gaza in January.

Hizbullah

• Origins: Lebanese Shiite group founded in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.

• Mission: create a Lebanese Islamic fundamentalist state modeled on Iran.

• Terrorist acts: More than 200 attacks since 1982; has cells in Europe and the Americas.

• Community role: Provides schools, medical care, and agricultural services in impoverished southern Lebanon.

• Ballot box success: In the Lebanese district elections on June 5, Hizbullah's coalition won all 23 seats.

Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, AP

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