- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

Today marks the second of four consecutive Sundays that Lebanese voters go to the polls to elect a new parliament in the country’s first free elections in 30 years, following the removal of Syrian occupation troops at the end of April. While voters will cast ballots in part on purely local, bread-and-butter issues, their vote could have important implications for Washington’s efforts to fight jihadists and their state supporters.

For American policy-makers, a critical question will be whether the new Lebanese government will be willing and able to force Hezbollah — the only armed militia in the country that was not required to disarm when the Lebanon Civil War ended in 1990 — to give up its weapons. Another question is whether Syria, one of the region’s most hostile governments toward the United States, will attempt to foment trouble in the hope that the Lebanese will call for Damascus to re-occupy the country. A closely related question is whether the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon — which for more than 20 years has flourished as a training area for Hezbollah and long a home to other international terrorist groups will remain a terrorist haven. Also, if democracy and the rule of law are returned to Lebanon, it would be another victory for President Bush’s efforts to expand democratic institutions in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Because of intense political and sectarian divisions that helped trigger a 15-year civil war in 1975, Lebanon’s political system is heavily weighted toward ensuring that all of the major religious and ethnic groups are represented in parliament. Although Muslims outnumber Christians by more than 2-1, parliament is to be divided evenly: 64 of the 128 members are to be Christians, the remaining 64 Muslims. The president of the country is to be a Christian, and, after consulting with members of parliament, he nominates the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim. The speaker of parliament will be a Shi’ite Muslim.

Right now the favorite to lead the party appears to be Saad Hariri, a Sunni, and son of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, whose assassination on Feb. 14 (which was widely believed to have been carried out at Syria’s behest) triggered a tumultuous wave of demonstrations and international condemnation that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in the spring. Mr. Hariri’s Future Tide movement is being challenged by Walid Jumblatt’s Democratic Gathering party. Hezbollah, which holds 12 seats in the current parliament, also remains a major political player.

Last week, Mr. Hariri, in an interview with The Washington Post, declared his intention to disarm Hezbollah. That same day, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah bragged at a rally of thousands of supporters in southern Lebanon that his organization has more than 12,000 rockets that put Israel within firing range. “The whole of the north of occupied Palestine as well as its settlements, airports, fields and farms are within the firing range of the fighters of the Islamic resistance [i.e., Hezbollah].” Sheikh Nasrallah denounced U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, the measure approved last year requiring Syria to withdraw its forces. As voters in southern Lebanon prepare to go to the polls, we can expect to hear more of the same verbiage from Hezbollah.

If Mr. Hariri wins the election by a landslide, as he now predicts, it will be interesting to see whether he follow through on his pledge to force Hezbollah to shed its weapons and whether he is prepared to play hardball in order to force the terrorist groups in the Bekaa Valley to leave the country.

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