For a town trying to coax back Western tourists after a 20-year hiatus, the first impressions here were not encouraging.
Syrian antiaircraft gunners lounged in the fields and huge portraits of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini glowered from lamp posts.
Yet Hizbullah, the guerrilla group that seeks an Iranian-style Islamic state in Lebanon, has joined the Tourism Ministry here in trying to entice foreigners to the majestic Roman ruins at Baalbek, a Hizbullah stronghold in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley.
Few Westerners dared to venture here during the country's 15-year civil war. But Hizbullah officials in Baalbek now present a much softer image. Over tea and cream cakes, Mohammed Sharaf al-Din, director of the Imam Khomeini Cultural Center, insists everyone is safe to return.
"All are welcome here, even Americans, although Clinton and [Defense Secretary William] Perry can stay at home," he says. The US government, however, still bars Americans from traveling to Lebanon and is unlikely to lift the ban until Hizbullah is disarmed.
Hizbullah's continuing "war of liberation" against Israeli forces, which occupy a nine-mile-wide strip of southern Lebanon as a self-declared security zone, has also created a climate of instability.
'They don't eat foreigners'
A Syrian tour guide showing a handful of Germans around the Roman temples of Jupiter, Venus, and Baccus here complained that 80 percent of June's and July's bookings from Europe had been canceled after Israel's 17-day offensive against suspected Hizbullah positions in Lebanon last month.
He pointed to a hand-painted sign at the entrance to the temple complex that reads in English: "Hizbullah welcomes the tourist." The guide grumbled: "Hizbullah are not monsters; they don't eat foreigners like your newspapers write."
Despite fiery claims it will fight on until "Jerusalem is liberated," Hizbullah knows its days as a guerrilla group are numbered. It is busily preparing itself for the time when a peace treaty is eventually signed between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.
Promoting tourism is part of Hizbullah's effort to reinvent itself as a legitimate political, social, and cultural organization. Baalbek is no mini-Tehran, and Hizbullah has relaxed its strict Islamic vigilance. Women in short skirts are as commonly seen on its dusty streets as are those swathed in black chadors.
Hizbullah's attempts to join the Lebanese mainstream began four years ago when its candidates won eight of 128 seats in the first post-war parliamentary elections.
It hopes to win more seats this summer. That could mean more attacks on Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, as Hizbullah tries to capitalize on its position as the only organization willing and able to challenge Israel's might.
Hizbullah viewed the US-brokered cease-fire as a victory. Militarily, it survived the Israeli offensive intact: Most of the 200 Lebanese who died during the Israeli campaign were civilians. Western defense analysts in Beirut said Hizbullah's claims that it lost just 14 fighters may be only slightly exaggerated.
"Even now Israelis admit they lost the last battle," says Mohammed Noun, a news presenter on Hizbullah's TV station, al-Manar.
The limited US-brokered agreement effectively gave the Hizbullah militants a license to attack Israeli forces inside Lebanon, while making it difficult for Israel to retaliate because Hizbullah operates among the civilian population. Hizbullah has an estimated hard core of just 600 highly motivated fighters, but it can mobilize thousands more.
A short but illustrious career?
"When parliamentary elections start in two month's time, I could become a politician. Then if fighting starts in the south, I'd be a fighter again. There is no distinction in Hizbullah between civilians, politicians, and fighters," says Mr. Sharaf al-Din, who used to work for the US oil company Aramco in Saudi Arabia. Smiling, the father of five said he would be happy to became a suicide bomber: "It's all Allah's will."
"There is a big difference between just dying and martyrdom," explains Mr. Noun, the news presenter for al-Manar, Hizbullah's main propaganda outlet. In a weekly broadcast, it features "martyrs" who have died fighting Israel.
Hizbullah's smooth welfare machine also wins support. Hizbullah operates well-equipped hospitals, funded mostly by Iran, in many of its strongholds in the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon.
Western diplomats in Beirut, however, said many press reports on Hizbullah's surging popularity after last month's Israeli offensive had been exaggerated. Lebanon's Francophile Christians, who once briefly allied themselves to Israel during the civil war, are alienated by Hizbullah's austere way of life and radical values.
"Even in the south, most people prefer Amal [the rival Shiite Muslim movement]," says a European envoy. "Certainly the Lebanese people were united in their sympathy for villagers in the south during the Israeli blitz, but that should not be confused with support for Hizbullah."
Even in Hizbullah strongholds that were damaged by Israeli attacks, it was not impossible to find villagers who quietly blamed the militant organization as much as Israel for their suffering. "Many of them know full well Hizbullah won't drive Israel from southern Lebanon. Only a peace treaty with Syria can do that," says the European diplomat.