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In Lebanon's wild east, Hezbollah finds itself on left foot

After supporting an Army crackdown against lawlessness in the Bekaa Valley, the Shiite organization faces a backlash from angry clan members ahead of June elections.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 2009

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard next to an army vehicle that was attacked near the town of Rayak, in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon.

Samer Husseini/AP

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Dar AlWasaa, Lebanon

The death of a noted drug dealer and the revenge killing of four soldiers have plunged the Lebanese Army into a confrontation with the powerful Shiite clans that rule Lebanon's wild northern Bekaa Valley.

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Hundreds of Lebanese special forces backed by helicopters deployed this week into the northern Bekaa, raiding homes and encircling villages in a manhunt for a gang suspected of carrying out an attack on Monday against an Army patrol that left four soldiers dead.

But the clash between the Army and clans in the Bekaa, a Hezbollah stronghold, has placed the powerful Shiite organization in an awkward position.

Long loathe to tangle with the clans from which it derives much grass-roots support, the organization had turned a blind eye to their criminality for years. But when a car thief struck one of its own, Hezbollah signalled its consent to the Army to crack down. Now, some angry clan members are vowing to vote against the Hezbollah-led opposition in June 7 parliamentary elections, shaping up to be the closest in decades.

The tough and close-knit Shiite clans have long held sway in the remote arid plain of the northern Bekaa, an area traditionally ignored by successive Lebanese governments. Some of them earn huge profits from drug trafficking, hashish cultivation, car theft, and counterfeiting.

In the impoverished village of Dar Al-Wasaa, tucked into rocky hills on the western flank of the Bekaa Valley, a woman from the Jafaar clan, one of the largest and most powerful tribes in the area, explains why they rely on drugs for income.

"This area is extremely neglected by the government," says the middle-aged woman, who declined to give her full name. "There is no way to earn a living. What are we supposed to do? Eat rocks? There's nothing for us to do but sell drugs."

Why Hezbollah's tolerance snapped

Although Hezbollah disapproves of drugs on moral and religious grounds, it generally ignores the hashish cultivation and heroin refining that takes place in the northern Bekaa.

And it has not been averse to exploiting narcotics as a weapon against Israel. After Israel withdrew from an occupied strip of south Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah coopted the existing cross-border drug smuggling networks.

Drug dealers in south Lebanon smuggle hashish and heroin across the border into Israel in exchange for cash for themselves and intelligence information for Hezbollah. The Israeli authorities have busted several drugs-for-intel spy rings in northern Israel in the past few years. One of the largest was run by a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army who, ironically, lost an eye to a Hezbollah roadside bomb while serving in south Lebanon in the 1990s.

But Hezbollah's tolerance of the criminality in the Bekaa snapped a few months ago when thieves stole a car belonging to Jihad Mughniyah, son of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah's top military commander who was assassinated last year in Damascus car bombing.

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