Lebanese army saddled with several handicaps

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- For four weeks, the Lebanese army has watched from the sidelines as war rages on its soil. Now, it's being floated as part of a possible solution to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants.

The Lebanese government proposed this week to send 15,000 troops into the war zone in southern Lebanon -- if Israel withdraws its soldiers. Aided by a strong multinational peacekeeping force, the Lebanese army eventually would take control of the south from the Hezbollah militia and eliminate the threat it poses to Israel.

That's the idea anyway. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday called it "interesting," as did President Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow.

But even if the Israelis agreed to withdraw, if Hezbollah agreed to stop fighting, and if the United Nations assembled a force willing and able to take on the Islamic militants, it is far from clear that the Lebanese army could keep Hezbollah's well-armed and trained guerrillas in check.

"It's not like we have a group of people that we simply can order to turn over their weapons," said Mohamed Shatah, a senior adviser to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. "This is a party that was involved in a long liberation war."

While Iran and Syria have armed Hezbollah with rockets, artillery, modern anti-tank weapons and even a missile that damaged an Israeli warship, the Lebanese army is saddled with ancient military hardware, only 14 operating helicopters, a tiny $540 million annual budget and a long history of neglect.

The army is also divided -- like the country itself -- along sectarian lines. Shiite Muslims are the dominant group, with some 35 percent of the army's 43,000 troops. Sunni Muslims and Christians account for about 30 percent each, according to Lebanon's Interior Ministry. But the army's commanding officers, including the chief of the army and its top intelligence officer, have long been and remain Christians.

Sending the Lebanese army to disarm Hezbollah, which draws its support primarily from the poor Shiite communities of the south, would threaten a return to the civil war that engulfed Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, analysts say.

"The Lebanese government is not going to try to confront Hezbollah militarily," said Haim Malka, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. Malka said the prominence of Shiites in the ranks is "a huge issue." He explained: "It's very likely that some of those people are already loyal to Hezbollah. But that doesn't mean that they can't serve in a Lebanese army."

To avoid sectarian strife, Lebanese officials see their army's deployment as part of a larger political solution that Hezbollah embraces, including the pullout of Israeli forces, an exchange of prisoners and the resolution of border disputes.

Such a proposed deployment has tacit approval from Hezbollah's political wing, which has two representatives in Mr. Siniora's Cabinet. Yesterday, Mr. Siniora said Lebanon was ready to "impose its full control, authority and presence" over the country.

In Hezbollah's southern strongholds, however, the army is a nonentity. Only 1,000 military police -- and no soldiers -- are stationed south of the Litani River, the northern boundary of a buffer zone where Israeli officials have said they intend to remove Hezbollah.

And when Israel attacked Hezbollah positions in Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers July 12, the army didn't engage, despite coming under Israeli fire several times.

To many in Lebanon, it recalled 1982, when Israeli forces drove all the way to Beirut to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the army stayed out of it.

"The army has said it will react if it's attacked," a government official said on condition of anonymity, because the comments contradict the government's public statements. "It has been attacked six times, and it hasn't responded, and it will never respond."

On Saturday, however, the army did respond when Israeli forces raided the southern town of Tyre in an earsplitting predawn attack. Two Lebanese armored personnel carriers equipped with anti-aircraft cannons fired on Israeli helicopters as they hovered over the city, briefly keeping the helicopters at bay. But it took only a few moments for Israeli missiles to strike the Lebanese vehicles, splitting each in half.


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