- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

NATABIYA, Lebanon — Hezbollah and its Shi’ite allies claimed victory in southern Lebanon in yesterday’s second stage of national elections, a vote that the group hopes will prove its strength and send a message of defiance to the United States.

Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters drove through the streets of Beirut waving the group’s yellow flag in celebration. In Beirut’s predominantly Shi’ite southern suburbs, fireworks lit up the sky.

Four hours after polling stations closed, Hezbollah and its ally, the Shi’ite Muslim Amal movement, said they had won all 23 seats in the region bordering Israel. Official results were not due before midday today.

“It has become clear that all members of the Resistance, Liberation and Development Ticket have won in [southern Lebanon’s] two regions,” said Sheik Naim Kassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader. “The south has declared through this vote its clear stance in supporting this track.”

The elections are scheduled for two more Sundays in other regions.

Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, still is admired widely by many Lebanese for having led resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000.

A U.N. resolution this year that called for Syrian troops to leave the country also called for the disarming of all Lebanese militias. Hezbollah insists that it needs its weapons to deter Israel from invading again.

Hezbollah used sound trucks, computers and drivers in a sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort, turning election day into a giant pep rally against calls for the disarming of the anti-Israeli militia that dominates life in the south.

In the town of Natabiya, just a few miles from the Israeli frontier, sound trucks blared martial music, and large banners honored Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah as well as militia members killed while fighting the Israelis.

Hussein Naboulsi, Hezbollah’s media relations coordinator, was hard at work in front of the town’s polling station, where many election workers wore ball caps and scarves in the militia’s trademark yellow.

“How are you? Do you need anything? Things are looking great for us,” he told reporters before escorting several journalists through the group’s election headquarters.

Adorned with blue and white curtains and modern furniture, the facility contained computers, refreshments and fax machines — as well as portraits of Sheik Nasrallah and the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

A dozen young men in blue shirts and yellow caps sat typing at a host of computers, entering and monitoring results from various voting districts. Potential voters were given rides in Hezbollah and Amal vehicles, directed to polling stations and met with fliers and mock ballots by the yellow-hatted volunteers.

Despite the pro-Hezbollah sentiment in southern Lebanon, the self-declared “Party of God” almost certainly will end up a minority party in an anti-Syrian government and, as such, faces huge pressures to transform itself into a legitimate political party.

“I used to respect Nasrallah for his position on Israel and because Hezbollah is not very corrupt,” said Naim Asseker, a Christian from Beirut.

“But what does he talk about now? Israel and the need to fight them. But Israel left. … What does he want for the country now? We need a new Lebanon.”

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