- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

2:07 p.m.

BEIRUT — Israel began slowly pulling out forces from southern Lebanon and made plans to hand over territory today on the first full day of a tense cease-fire that already has been tested by skirmishes and rocket fire.

Israeli and Hezbollah forces avoided any escalation, raising hopes that the U.N.-imposed pact could stick, and governments rushed to assemble international troops to deploy in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s two patrons, Syria and Iran, proclaimed that the guerrillas had won the fight with Israel and thwarted America’s plan for a “new Middle East” — a reflection of the two countries’ boosted confidence and Hezbollah’s increased popularity around the Arab and Islamic world.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said early in the war between Hezbollah and Israel that any settlement should be durable and lead to a “new Middle East” where extremists have no influence.

However, after 34 days of fighting, a cease-fire that took effect yesterday brought only a fragile truce, with Hezbollah surviving and Israeli forces unable to score a decisive victory. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has declared a “strategic, historic victory” against Israel.

Israel and its main backer, the United States, portrayed Hezbollah — and by extension, its main backers, Iran and Syria — as the losers. “There’s going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon,” President Bush said yesterday.

As Lebanese refugees streamed home, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over southern Lebanon warning residents to stay out of the area until Lebanese and international troops are deployed.

“The situation will remain dangerous” until the forces are deployed, the leaflets read.

Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon shot five Hezbollah fighters today in two separate incidents, but it was not clear whether they were wounded or killed, the army said.

The Islamic militant group fired at least 10 rockets at Israeli targets in southern Lebanon shortly after midnight, but none landed in Israel. Yesterday, at least six Hezbollah militiamen were killed by Israeli troops waiting for a peacekeeping force before beginning a full-scale withdrawal.

Israel is waiting for a peacekeeping force to deploy in the south before withdrawing. Lebanon is under intense international pressure to get soldiers moving south into Hezbollah territory — a key element in the U.N. Security Council plan to end the conflict that claimed more than 970 lives.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Hezbollah has “hoisted the banner of victory” over Israel and thwarted U.S.-led plans to forge a Middle East dominated by “the U.S., Britain and Zionists.”

“God’s promises have come true,” Mr. Ahmadinejad told a huge crowd in Arbadil in northwestern Iran. “On one side, it’s corrupt powers … with modern bombs and planes. And on the other side is a group of pious youth relying on God.”

In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad said the region has changed “because of the achievements” of Hezbollah and turned U.S. dreams of a “new Middle East” into “an illusion.”

The U.N. Security Council blueprint calls for Lebanese forces to join up with another 15,000 soldiers in a strengthened U.N.-backed military mission. Their job would be to patrol an 18-mile buffer zone from the Litani River to the Israeli border.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister Elias Murr said the Lebanese force of 15,000 soldiers could be on the north side of the Litani River by the end of the week. However, they still must cross the river and try to enforce the central government’s control over Hezbollah areas for the first time in decades.

In Jerusalem, Israeli army officials said they plan to begin handing over some captured positions tomorrrow and hope to complete the withdrawal from Lebanon by next week.

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