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Hezbollah militants regroup amid war jitters

The Lebanese Shiite group is recruiting Sunnis, training in Iran for a possible second war with Israel.

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Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the party's leader, in February said that Hezbollah had evolved into an "unparalleled new school" that is part guerrilla force and part conventional army.

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A European diplomat in Beirut, who has been watching Hezbollah's preparations, likened attacking the organization to "punching a sponge" – it absorbs the blow then bounces back – and questioned whether Israel still fully appreciates what it is up against.

Hezbollah's military buildup is not confined to Shiite Lebanese. Sunnis, Christians, and Druze also are being recruited into reservist units called "Saraya," or battalions.

Building ties to Sunnis serves for Hezbollah the double purpose of expanding support while also helping improve Shiite-Sunni relations, strained due to political divisions in Lebanon.

In the southern coastal town of Sidon, a Sunni Islamist militant group called the Fajr Forces, which fought invading Israeli troops in the early 1980s, has been resurrected as a Hezbollah ally.

Sheikh Afif Naboulsi, a prominent Hezbollah cleric, last month was quoted as saying that next time "the Israelis will find resistance fighters from all sects and denominations."

Hezbollah has been particularly active, according to residents, in the eastern pocket of the zone patrolled by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The area is the mainly Sunni Arqoub district and faces the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside running along Lebanon's border with the Golan Heights.

Having lost ground here to political rivals after the 2006 war, Hezbollah is now seeking to regain its influence through funding a new group called the Arab Resistance Front, a reservist force for local Sunnis. Even former members of the now disbanded Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army militia have joined the new group, according to local residents.

"Hezbollah will not turn down anyone who wants to join the resistance," says Izzat Qadri, the Sunni mayor of Kfar Shuba and an ally of Hezbollah.

Despite the frequent recruiting in the border zone, officials with UNIFIL say there is no evidence Hizbullah has reactivated its bunkers and rocket-firing positions that the militants abandoned at the end of the 2006 war.

Hezbollah fighters presently are deployed along a new front line above the Litani River, north of the area patrolled by UNIFIL. In the past 18 months, Hezbollah has purchased land from local Druze and Christians, constructed an entire Shiite-populated village, and turned the mountains and valleys of the area into sealed-off military zones.

"There are armed and uniformed Hezbollah men crawling all over the hills. We often hear gunfire and explosions from their training," says one local resident.