Thursday, July 27, 2006

Hezbollah’s display of coordinated attacks and small-unit action is surprising the world community and making Western nations think twice about agreeing to put peacekeeping troops between the militant Lebanese Shi’ite group and aggressive Israeli forces, military analysts say.

“It’s not that they are fanatical,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. “But in many ways, they are quite deliberate. It shows reasonable command and control and training in small-unit action. … In terms of enemy combatants, the most military competent enemy combatant is Hezbollah.”

He said that persuading Western nations to send troops to southern Lebanon would be a “hard sell.”

“Few nations want to confront Hezbollah because the terrorist group has an unquenchable lust for martyrdom fueled by a radical Islamic ideology,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, a military analyst. “I’m not optimistic about the so-called peacekeeping effort. NATO could do the mission, but the French will veto, and besides they already have their hands full in Afghanistan and the Balkans. The European Union is a good candidate, but because members have cut rather than increased their military budgets for more than a decade, they are unlikely to jump on the alternative.”

A defense source said yesterday that the Israeli army is somewhat surprised by Hezbollah’s fighting tactics and ability to keep launching scores of rockets into Israeli cities despite relentless aerial bombing.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a crisis conference in Rome yesterday that European nations agreed on the need for a United Nations-backed peace force for Lebanon. But volunteer nations have been slow to raise their hands.

Israel started waves of air strikes July 12 against hundreds of Hezbollah targets throughout Lebanon. It claimed last week that the air war had destroyed half of Hezbollah’s arsenal. But in the war’s third week, U.S. intelligence sources told The Washington Times that the damage is less than a third.

Hezbollah has been modernizing its militia of about 1,000 combatants since it was formed in 1982 and has accelerated its expansion since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Iran and Syria stepped up shipments of arms, particularly rockets, while Hezbollah dug in, creating bunkers and underground tunnels within Lebanon’s tiny villages.

“Villages have become natural fortifications, and all roads go through these villages,” said Gen. Scales.

Hezbollah has accumulated more than 13,000 rockets, some capable of reaching 200 miles inside Israel, according to reported estimates.

Couple Hezbollah’s willingness to attack at any time with Israel’s aggressive drive to destroy the terror group and it becomes an uninviting scenario for any country contributing peacekeeping troops. There is still the memory of Hezbollah suicide bombers blowing up a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 American service members.

For any force to enter the 45-mile-by-15-mile hilly, forested area, there must be a cease-fire. That too is proving allusive. Some in the Pentagon doubt Hezbollah would ever cede its territory to foreigners or live by any agreement that prevented it from attacking Israel. The White House has downplayed the chance that any U.S. troops would return to Lebanon as peacekeepers.

Any force likely would have to number in the thousands to successfully discourage more fighting. The Times reported in 2002 on a confidential study at the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. It said 20,000 troops would be needed to enforce a Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Gen. Scales said other militant Arab nations or groups may be looking at the Hezbollah model as a way to fight Israel: not with large armies and tanks, but with small, well-trained guerrilla groups.

Still, Israel owns superior firepower and intelligence, and in the end can defeat Hezbollah if given enough time.

“At the end of the day, they are still a guerrilla force and relatively small,” Gen. Scales said.

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