- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

NAQQURA, Lebanon

The giant billboard faces south toward the Israeli border, its taunting message written in English for easy reading by the soldiers watching from the other side.

“We are victorious,” it shouts in bold letters printed over a picture of an Israeli tank destroyed during 34 days of warfare last summer.

Hezbollah, which fought the Israeli army to a bloody stalemate in the rolling green hills of southern Lebanon 12 months ago, has erected dozens of such billboards across the country, each emphasizing that it won a “Victory from God” last summer. While a few of the billboards face Israel, far more have been erected across the Lebanese capital of Beirut and other cities, their message aimed at an increasingly skeptical domestic audience.

Hezbollah, which began the war by staging a cross-border raid into Israel, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two others, claims victory because it inflicted heavy casualties on the Israeli army during the invasion that followed, forcing Israel to accept a cease-fire without achieving its stated aims of crushing the Shi’ite militia or retrieving the two kidnapped soldiers.

But a year after the fighting that killed about 1,200 Lebanese, laid waste to entire towns in the south and devastated the country’s economy, the suggestion that the anniversary of the war should be celebrated is difficult for many Lebanese to swallow.

“It’s true the war was a victory for our country. An outside force attacked Lebanon and was stopped by a Lebanese force. But it’s not a sweet victory; it’s a miserable one,” said Mohammed Fares, manager of the popular Petit Cafe in the center of Beirut.

“Buildings were destroyed, the economy was destroyed. It will take us 10 years to rebuild.”

Shortly after the fighting with Israel came to a halt, Hezbollah set off a political offensive against Lebanese forces it felt had not shown sufficient support during the conflict against the Jewish state. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s pro-Western government was identified as culprit No. 1 and his offices, just a few blocks from Mr. Fares’ restaurant, have been the target of eight months of nonstop Hezbollah-led protests calling for his resignation.

All Shi’ite Cabinet ministers quit Mr. Siniora’s government, heightening the divisions between the Sunni-led government and the predominantly Shi’ite opposition, with the country’s Christian and Druze politicians splitting between the two camps. The United States and the Sunni Arab Gulf states rushed aid to Mr. Siniora’s government, while Syria and Iran continued their longtime support for Hezbollah.

The situation remains a tinderbox, and Hezbollah’s celebration of the war is another irritant to Lebanese who feel the Islamist militia risks destroying a country that was just beginning to recover from 15 years of civil war.

In a televised speech to mark the anniversary of the start of the war, Mr. Siniora called for unity, saying the country was on the verge of a new conflict.

“Just as we stood together to confront the [Israeli] aggression … let us build on what joins us, and resolve what separates us,” he said, just before Lebanese leaders from all factions, including Hezbollah, met in Paris for crisis talks that ended Sunday night with little progress to report.

“Continuing in this road will only lead us to more losses and more dire circumstances,” Mr. Siniora said.

c Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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