RIHAN, LEBANON — The metal sign dangling from a shiny new chain reads: "Warning. Access to this area is forbidden. Hizbullah."
The notice strung between two concrete blocks on a hillside overlooking the Litani River, is just one indication that the Shiite militants have relocated here to build a new line of defense.
Hizbullah's strengthening presence just across the Litani – the northern border of the zone UN peacekeeping forces and Lebanese troops have been policing since last summer's war between Hizbullah and Israel – coincides with a series of land purchases here by a Shiite businessman with ties to the militant group and, critics say, with funds from Tehran.
While analysts say the military buildup does not necessarily signal any intention by the Iranian-supported militants to launch a fresh round of fighting, they say it is a troubling sign that Hizbullah is rearming just out of sight of the United Nations.
Regionally, say critics, that means Iran could be rebuilding its ally's military capability inside Lebanon and could strike again at Israel. "If you have a major Iranian- American clash, one thing we fear is that the Iranian reaction could be from Lebanon," says Marwan Hamade, Lebanon's telecommunications minister and political opponent of Hizbullah.
Hizbullah has chosen to abandon its former stronghold in Lebanon's UN-patrolled southern border district where its fighters withstood Israel's month-long onslaught last summer.
In that area, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has swelled to six times its former size with reinforcements from NATO countries such as France, Italy, and Spain. They have been joined by some 20,000 Lebanese troops and together they man around 100 checkpoints and conduct 500 patrols day and night, UNIFIL officials say.
To be sure, Hizbullah's fighters continue to live in the southern border villages and keep a close eye on movements along the Israeli border and on the newly arrived European UN troops. But UNIFIL officials say that they have seen no armed fighters since September and that Hizbullah's former "security pockets" and bunkers have been abandoned.
"Some arms caches have been found, but they are from before the war. There have been no instances of attempts to smuggle weapons into the area," says Milos Strugar, UNIFIL's senior adviser.
But now, locals say, Hizbullah is seen more frequently in these remote hills just north of the Litani. "They have always been in the area but there's a lot more movement now," says one man who lives in the vicinity but requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
On a brush-covered hillside overlooking the Litani River, two Hizbullah fighters wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying rifles and walkie-talkies emerged from the bushes beside a stone track. They take the name of a visiting reporter and politely – but firmly – say that no entry is permitted into the area.
Less than a mile to the west, another Hizbullah position is guarded by an armed and uniformed fighter sitting in a small hut with a landline telephone.
According to one veteran Hizbullah fighter, during the war, long-range rockets were launched at Israel, around 10 miles to the south, from underground firing positions in this same area.
Lebanese troops man checkpoints along the main roads here, but are not interfering with Hizbullah's activities. With Hizbullah refusing to disarm and the Lebanese government and Army incapable of dismantling it by force, the fate of the group's arms remains an intractable political dilemma.
Hizbullah does not deny that it is replenishing its war-depleted stocks. Three weeks ago, a truck filled with rockets and mortars destined for Hizbullah was discovered by Lebanese customs police. Hizbullah asked that the weapons be returned, but the Lebanese minister of defense refused, saying they would be handed over to the Lebanese Army.
In a speech on Feb. 16, Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah admitted that the group was "transporting weapons to the front [in the south]."
"We have weapons of all kinds and quantities, as many as you want. We don't fight our enemy with swords made of wood," he said.
Still, the extent of the military buildup in these "security pockets" north of the Litani is unclear given the ingenuity of Hizbullah's engineers and the strict secrecy under which the group operates. Before the war last summer, Hizbullah spent six years secretly building bunkers, tunnels, and firing positions along the border with Israel.
In one case, a bunker complex 100 feet underground covering an area of almost a square mile was built within 300 yards of a UNIFIL observation post and an Israeli army position on the border, but its existence remained hidden until after the war.
"They let us see certain things like their observation posts along the border fence, but all the time they were building an underground city in the south that we never knew existed," says Timur Goksel, who retired as UNIFIL's senior adviser in 2003.
Hizbullah's area of deployment north of the Litani is populated by Shiites, Christians, and Druze who live in small villages and farmsteads tucked into the folds of these remote mountains.
For the past year, Ali Tajiddine, a Shiite businessman who traded diamonds in West Africa before branching into property development and construction, has been snapping up vast tracts of land in the district from impoverished Christian and Druze property holders.
On one barren windswept hillside, a new community called Ahmadiyeh is being built from scratch with houses and shops surrounding a stone quarry owned by Mr. Tajiddine. Some two-thirds of a nearby Druze village called Sraireh has been bought up and more than 440 acresof land has been purchased from the nearby Christian hamlet of Qotrani where 30 buildings are under construction and have been sold to Shiites, according to local residents.
"There's no living to make here, so people are selling their land and moving," says one of the 350 remaining residents of Sraireh, which has seen 80 percent of its population leave, mainly to the Druze-dominated Chouf mountains farther north. He says that Tajiddine was paying in cash whatever amount was requested by property owners.
Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze and arch foe of Hizbullah, says that the land is being purchased with Iranian funds delivered to Hizbullah and disbursed by Tajiddine. Tajiddine's connections to Hizbullah are widely known locally in south Lebanon. One of his relatives was arrested in Antwerp, Belgium, in May 2003 in a case involving diamonds from West Africa and suspected money laundering on behalf of Hizbullah.
Mr. Jumblatt says the intention is to create a Shiite belt spanning the northern bank of the Litani, allowing Hizbullah freedom to operate while severing Christian and Druze districts from each other.
"I have bought some land in Sraireh to encourage people to stay," he says. "But I can't compete financially with Iran."
But Hizbullah officials dismiss the allegations as unfounded. "Walid Jumblatt likes to stir calm waters," says Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy leader. "Since when was Lebanon a series of cantons where Shiites can only buy land in Shiite areas?"
Tajiddine also plays down the sectarian nature of his business dealings, arguing that the area in question is only a "tiny fraction" of his nationwide property developments. "The buildings are for my employees who work in the quarries. I have employees who are Shiites, Druze, Sunnis, and Christians."
But the remaining residents of Qotrani and Sraireh question Tajiddine's interest in this remote district of south Lebanon. "There's nothing here. This is not an area for investment," says one, gesturing at the surrounding brush-covered mountains.