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Hezbollah's formidable weapons arsenal under fresh scrutiny

Lebanon's new government is slated to review the militant Shiite party's weapons as part of a national defense strategy once it takes office. The prisoner swap with Israel has given Hezbollah new leverage.

By Correspondent / July 19, 2008

Beirut, Lebanon

The successful conclusion of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah has won the militant Lebanese Shiite party new leverage against its domestic opponents, even as fresh challenges over the fate of its formidable weapons arsenal loom.

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With the Hezbollah-led opposition having recently secured a one-third, veto-wielding share of a new coalition government, the Shiite party is in its strongest domestic position since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. His death presaged the collapse of what was then a pro-Syrian political order in favor of a new Western-backed regime.

"Hezbollah is in a much stronger position than it was after the Hariri assassination," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and specialist on Hezbollah. "The political victory [gaining veto power in the new government] and the prisoner exchange has consolidated its position. But the challenges it faces remain the same and the struggle has not ended."

The swap was touted as a moment of national unity in which even Hezbollah's political opponents gritted their teeth to praise the party for securing the release of the five detainees. But once the acclaim is over and the new government takes office, Lebanon's top political leaders are scheduled to discuss the future of Hezbollah's weapons as part of a national defense strategy.

Supporters of the Western-backed March 14 parliamentary block, which forms the backbone of the new government, seek to disarm the Iran-backed Hezbollah or at least place restraints on the party's ability to use its weapons. Although Hezbollah says its weapons are solely for the defense of Lebanon, its critics fear that they are intended to benefit Tehran's regional ambitions at the expense of Lebanon's stability.

Since its July-August 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has expanded its military assets in terms of weapons, communications, and recruits, and broadened its deployment over large swathes of southern and eastern Lebanon. Israel claimed this week that Hezbollah has tripled the number of rockets in its arsenal since the war, a figure Hezbollah has not bothered to dispute.

"The resistance managed, in spite of all [domestic] problems, to strengthen its political and military capacities. The resistance has become stronger than it was in July 2006," Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, Hezbollah's southern commander said this week.

Paradoxically, however, the return of the last Lebanese detainees in Israel has removed one of Hezbollah's chief reasons for maintaining its formidable military wing in the first place.

Still, there are many other outstanding grievances cited by Hezbollah as reason to keep its weapons. Among them are Israel's continuing occupations of the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shuba hills, a 12-square-mile mountainside running along Lebanon's southeast border and the northern end of Ghajar, a village which straddles the border at the foot of the farms. Israel's near-daily overflights by jets and reconnaissance drones, in breach of UN resolutions, continue to rankle.