As reports indicate the militant Islamic groups Hizbullah and Hamas are rearming themselves in case of a conflict with Israel, a high-level Hizbullah official has accused the US of waging a "covert war" in Lebanon against the organization.
The Guardian reports that Hizbullah's deputy secretary general, Sheikh Naim Qasim, said in an interview that US Vice President Dick Cheney "has given orders for a covert war against Hizbullah... there is now an American program that is using Lebanon to further its goals in the region."
The accusation follows reports in the US and British media that the CIA has been authorised to take covert action against the militant Shia group, which receives substantial military backing from Iran, as part of wider strategy by the Bush administration to prevent the spread of Iranian influence in the region.
According to the reports, US intelligence agencies are authorised to provide "non-lethal" funding to anti-Hizbullah groups in Lebanon and to activists who support the western-backed government of Fouad Siniora.
But Hizbullah accused the Lebanese government of arming groups across the country. "This happens with the knowledge of the prime minister and is facilitated by the security forces under his command," said Sheikh Qasim. The Bush administration recently set aside $60m (£30m) to fund the interior ministry's internal security force, which has almost doubled in size to 24,000 troops. Sheikh Qasim said there was a growing anti-Hizbullah bias in the security services. "The internal security forces have not succeeded in playing a balanced role ... The sectarian issue is very delicate when it comes to the security services."
Sheikh Qusim's accusation comes after contradictory charges of a pro-Hizbullah bias by Lebanese security forces were made last week. There have been growing concerns that Syria – which has long supplied Hizbullah with weapons and financing – has stepped up illegal arms transfers across its border with Lebanon. The Associated Press reports that Walid Jumblatt, the anti-Syrian leader of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party, told Al Jazeera television that members of the Lebanese security forces were helping Hizbullah smuggle arms into the country, undermining the Lebanese government.
"There is a state within a state," Jumblatt said of Lebanon in the interview. "There is a Hizbullah army alongside the Lebanese army.
There is Hizbullah intelligence alongside Lebanese (army) intelligence and there are Lebanese territories that the army is prohibited from entering." ...
Jumblatt, a one-time ally of Hizbullah, turned against the group last year and has been among the most ardent callers for disarming it.
The AP writes that in a speech Sunday, however, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah announced it would not give up its weapons until the Lebanese army becomes capable of resisting Israeli attacks.
The Hezbollah leader apparently was responding to repeated calls by the country's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority for his group to disarm in line with a UN resolution that ended last summer's Israel-Hezbollah war.
"The only solution is that there must be a strong state and a strong army capable of confronting any Israeli aggression on Lebanon," he said.
Sheikh Nasrallah also announced that talks had deadlocked between Hizbullah's pro-Syria allies and Lebanon's pro-government majority, and called for a referendum or early parliamentary elections to resolve the stalemate.
Lebanese Web portal Naharnet.com writes that Samir Geagea, leader of the pro-government Lebanese Forces party, slammed Nasrallah's stance and accused him of "not allowing the rise of the [Lebanese] state" and of trying to drag Lebanon into a war meant to create a global Islamic nation.
"You want to liberate the whole of Palestine and throw the Jews in the sea. You want to push the Americans out of all Muslim lands. You want to liberate the Balkan province ... We are not affiliated with this scheme," Geagea told Nasrallah.
"You have no right to take the Lebanese people hostage to carry out your strategy. The Lebanese state exists, the Lebanese entity exists and you will not be able to drag the Lebanese people into war," he added.
"No one can impose on us what we don't want. No one can impose on us strategies or ideologies," Geagea announced.
Nonetheless, Hizbullah is readying for the possibility of battle. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that the heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington have spurred preparations by Iran and its allies, Syria and Hizbullah, in case of a US strike against Iran or new military action by Israel.
"US threats against Iran are no longer regarded by the Iranians and Syrians as just saber-rattling, and it's only natural that they prepare themselves," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
Hizbullah officials and fighters say that the party has launched an intensified training program with new recruits pushed through month-long courses in camps scattered along the flanks of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Veteran fighters receive refresher courses and can volunteer for 45-day programs to join special-forces units.
"There is a high level of recruitment. The rearmament is happening because there will be a war with Syria. The Israelis cannot accept the insult of the July war," says Mohammed, a Hizbullah activist in Beirut, referring to last summer's conflict.
The Monitor adds that Hamas, which received aid from Iran after winning control of the Palestianian Authority and being isolated by the West, is also reequipping itself, according to Israeli officials.
Israel claims that dozens of Hamas militants have traveled to Iran for training and that Iranian-supplied weapons are being smuggled via tunnels from Egypt into Gaza. "Hamas is doing all its best to arm itself. The attempt to stop it is like putting a door in the middle of the desert," [Zvi Shtauber, director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel] says, commenting on an Egyptian promise this week to stave the flow of weapons. "You can just go around it."
The report that Hamas is rearming was echoed Tuesday in a statement by Israeli internal security service Shin Bet, The New York Times reports. The Shin Bet statement cited a wave of arrests of Hamas militants in the West Bank town of Qalqilya, along with an aborted suicide bombing launched from the town, as evidence that Hamas is gearing up for a new terrorist campaign against Israel. The Times writes that Hamas refused to comment on Shin Bet's statement yesterday. Haaretz reports that Palestinian Authority police officials denied Shin Bet's claims, however.