- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Can Hezbollah — which has more American blood on its hands than any existing terrorist organization save al Qaeda — become a mainstream player in Lebanese politics? President Bush apparently hopes so. The president recently expressed hope that Hezbollah, which is believed to get $100-200 million per year from Iran, might lay down its arms and transform itself from a terrorist group into a mainstream Lebanese political party. “We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization,” Mr. Bush said last month. “I hope that Hezbollah would prove they’re not by laying down arms and not threatening peace.”

After the president’s comments, a senior U.S. official explained that Hezbollah would have to “disarm, renounce terror and abandon any support for terrorism” if it wanted to “play a constructive role in Lebanon.” Only then would Washington be willing to deal with Hezbollah as a legitimate political organization. “There is no place for an armed militia in a democratic society,” the official added.

While all other Lebanese militias disarmed following the conclusion of Lebanon’s civil war more than 15 years ago, Hezbollah has retained substantial weaponry, and it has responded contemptuously to calls for it to disarm. Five years ago, it managed to drive Israel, the region’s military superpower, out of southern Lebanon. With money and weapons shipped in from Syria and Iran, and logistical support from Iranian Revolutionary Guards based in Lebanon, Hezbollah would more than hold its own in an armed confrontation with the Lebanese Army, which is plagued by sectarian conflict and cannot match Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Hezbollah’s army in Lebanon today consists of a hard core of several hundred highly trained fighters in addition to several thousand armed activists functioning as a militia. According to Michael Herzog, a former Israeli peace negotiator now affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hezbollah possesses 13,000 rockets. The overwhelming majority of them are short-range Katyusha rockets which can reach the Galilee and other parts of northern Israel — where 1.5 million people — more than 20 percent of Israel’s population live. More ominous are several hundred Iranian-supplied Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets, some of which have the potential to reach Haifa, Hadera and other Israeli cities located much farther from the Lebanese border. The stated purpose for Hezbollah’s retention of these weapons — the “liberation” of Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation — ended five years ago. But if war were to erupt between Iran and Israel, Hezbollah’s arsenal would give it the potential to join the conflict on Tehran’s side.

Once Israel and Syria are out of Lebanon, Washington’s top goal will be to ensure that Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, do not become the dominant political/military forces there. The Bush administration will be well within its rights to make the case that full compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 requires the removal of Iran’s armed presence from Lebanon, and to remind the international community that Hezbollah has no legitimate reason to retain its destabilizing military arsenal.

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