Wednesday, August 30, 2006

One clear result of the cease-fire in Lebanon is the newfound respect for Hezbollah throughout the Muslim world. Hezbollah was already a power in Lebanon — both as a political party that ran its own schools, social services and hospitals — but also as an armed force that could and did challenge the Lebanese military in order to make its own rules.

Its deadliness as a terror organization is well known. With the longstanding support of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah or one of its precursors has waged war against the United States for more that two decades. But these days, having demonstrated the ability to withstand a month-long Israeli assault, Hezbollah has finally achieved mythic status on the Arab Street.

And as if that wasn’t enough, mere hours after the cease-fire was proclaimed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Hezbollah — armed not with anti-tank missiles but with $150 million of Iran’s petrodollars — began to perform all the humanitarian functions that the governments of Lebanon, the United States and the European Union are still just talking about. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke recently about “witnessing the birth of a new Middle East,” I don’t think this is what she had in mind.

Because of the new-found respect granted to Hezbollah by the Arab Street, a potential tectonic shift may be underway in the Middle East. The rise of the Shia crescent, orchestrated by Iran, could sweep from Lebanon through Iraq and all the way through the Gulf. This would cause profound shock waves throughout the region where there are Shia minorities. Further, such an outcome would be a severe blow to U.S. objectives for the region.

Which is why at this critical junction, the United States needs to seize the initiative to dampen the euphoria over Hezbollah’s recent actions, thwart the rise of a potential Shia crescent, refocus the world on Iran’s dangerous nuclear plans, and get some respect of its own in the region.

Iraq provides the immediate venue for all of these goals. There are clear indications of Iranian support for the Shia death squads in Iraq. And agents of Iran’s Seppah-e Pasdaran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, train and arm the Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s private militia, the Mahdi Army.

As long as the Mahdi Army is a viable force, it will remain Iran’s strongest surrogate in Tehran’s attempt to thwart U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq. The Mahdi Army has to be neutralized and disarmed. Failure to do so will only lead to an Iraqi Hezbollah — another state within a state with all the dangerous consequences that follow.

One hopes that Iraq’s prime minister will support such an action. But with or without him, the U.S. must crush the Mahdi Army quickly and eliminate the radical Shia Muqtada al-Sadr. These actions must be followed by the Iraqi government’s immediate move to provide all the necessary social, humanitarian and security services to fill the vacuum left by the elimination of Mahdi Army.

Such a decisive action at this time will send a clear message to Tehran that their acts to achieve their objectives will not go unanswered. It may also garner for the United States some much-needed respect. Because to the Arab Street, winning hearts and minds doesn’t count for much. On the Arab Street, respect means everything.

James Lyons served as commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (the largest single military command in the world), senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and as deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.

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