- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2006

BEIRUT — With the guns put away for now, jockeying for political position in Lebanon has begun, and Hezbollah has mounted a massive advertising campaign.

Along roads in and out of the capital, there are red signs with slogans such as “the divine victory” and images ranging from angry Lebanese standing on the rubble of their homes to children wounded by Israeli bombs to Hezbollah guerrillas standing next to Katyusha rocket launchers.

“What we are trying to do is to make sure that everyone knows that Hezbollah beat Israel and to make sure that Lebanon is rebuilt as soon as possible,” said Ghassan Darwish, the head of Hezbollah’s information department, in Haret Hreik, a southern Beirut suburb that was home to many Hezbollah offices and was heavily bombed.

Nearby, women picked through the rubble of their homes before the concrete and twisted metal was carted away.

The government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora also has begun to advertise, but without the money on hand or the discipline of Hezbollah.

Among observant Muslims in the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli, support for Shi’ite Hezbollah appeared to cross sectarian lines.

“There is only one atmosphere in the entire country,” said an imam at one of the oldest mosques in Tripoli. “No one will ever say that they are against [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah.”

Before the fighting with Israel began, Lebanese parties had been debating the issue of Hezbollah’s disarmament.

“Those that were opposed to Hezbollah before July 12 are still opposed to Hezbollah, but definitely they are more scared,” said Hanady Salman, an editor at As-Safir, arguably Lebanon’s most left-leaning daily. He was referring to Hezbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers on Israeli soil, which started the war.

“Hezbollah is portrayed — outside Lebanon and inside Lebanon sometimes — as a group of people who came from outer space and want to impose their will on the Lebanese people. But Hezbollah is Lebanese, those were Lebanese people fighting in the south.”

“The difference now is that Hezbollah is now viewed outside Lebanon as a Arab nationalist movement,” Mr. Salman said. “But it still needs to prove its legitimacy as a Lebanese party.”

The belief that the U.S. supported Israel during the war also helped to boost Hezbollah’s standing.

“We’re not in a popularity contest — we have much longer objectives,” said a U.S. diplomatic source in Beirut. “There were very significant benefits for the pro-reform, pro-democratic movement.”

But analysts and members of the largely secular and pro-economic reform parliamentary bloc, with whom the United States and the West are most familiar, fear that public support for this group has declined with the surge in Hezbollah’s popularity.

“The underlying issue is the rebuilding of the state, including the need to have only one armed force with only authority over weapons and that kind of thing, so to have that kind of assistance happen outside the state, that only helps perpetuate the weakness of the state,” said Mohammed Shatah, an adviser to Mr. Siniora. “Frankly, we have mixed feelings.”

The reform bloc, led by Mr. Siniora, took control of parliament after Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution last year.

Asking a group of Lebanese about what Hezbollah’s long-term goals are prompts a varied response — from the goal of legitimate resistance to the takeover of the Lebanese government on behalf of Iran.

“For lots of people, Arab nationalism and secular movements and leftist movements failed in providing what they promised to provide,” Mr. Salman said.

“This huge support is not due to an Islamist turn, but for once, someone was able to teach [Israel] a lesson. I wouldn’t say they were victorious, but they kicked them out.”

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