THE RIDDLE OF HIZBULLAH

THE RIDDLE OF HIZBULLAH

The street party in Martyrs' Square had dwindled to a few stragglers. By early last week, the thousands of young Lebanese protesters who had gathered in downtown Beirut were temporarily heading home. Some locals derided the stylishly dressed, mostly secular crowd as "Gucci revolutionaries." Still, they had won a real victory. The protests increased international pressure on Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, who announced a partial withdrawal of the 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon--a big step after 30 years of covert manipulation and overt military occupation.

Within shouting distance of the square, however, the feel-good "Cedar Revolution" gave way to a more familiar kind of Arab uprising. Half a million angry Shiites, supporters of the Syrian regime, turned out, chanting, "Death to America! Death to Israel!" The counterprotest was the work of Hizbullah, the terrorist group that has become a potent voice in Lebanese politics. Many in the crowd had been bused in from distant villages. Poor and religious, the protesters came to show their devotion to Hizbullah, which some believe is the only thing protecting them from a U.S.-led "Zionist" plot to take over their land and culture.

Americans generally know Hizbullah as the organization that is blamed for attacks like the 1983 bombing that killed 241 Marines in Beirut. In Lebanon, however, the group is widely admired for its network of charities and social services. Hizbullah runs hospitals and orphanages and distributes food to the poor. Its popularity among the downtrodden has allowed it to branch out into mainstream politics. The group now holds 11 seats in Lebanon's Parliament and is expected to win many more in the upcoming May elections.

The party's popularity at home puts the Bush administration in a delicate spot. Not so long ago, George W. Bush vowed to hunt down terrorists and anyone who supports them. But the president's ambitious plan to spread democracy in the Middle East requires a far more nuanced approach than he, or his aides, are used to. Rule one: sometimes the best diplomacy is to hold your tongue. Last week The New York Times ran a story suggesting that the administration might reach out to Hizbullah. Asked about the report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said U.S. policy toward the group hadn't changed. At the same time, though, she took pains to avoid calling Hizbullah a terrorist organization--although the State Department has officially labeled it that for years.

She held back for a reason. The administration's top priority in Lebanon is to get the Syrians out, so the democratic movement can take hold. The last thing the White House needs is to pick a fight with Hizbullah, which would only strengthen the hand of Lebanon's anti-U.S. radicals and their patrons in Syria and Iran. In the words of one senior administration official, last week's pro-Syria demonstrations were "a reminder that you don't screw around with Hizbullah as a political force in Lebanon."

Rice's careful words weren't the only sign of the administration's new approach. The White House is giving the United Nations a leading role in pushing for a Syrian pullout. Administration officials even admit they are following the advice of the French(!), who warn against focusing too much attention on Hizbullah. Still, it's a tricky job; some analysts worry that without Syria, Hizbullah may move closer to its other major sponsor, Iran.

Even the group's most loyal supporters seem to be bracing for a day when Syria is gone. At last week's Hizbullah rallies, demonstrators waved pictures of Syrian President Assad and Lebanese flags side by side. "They are hedging their bets," says an administration official. Hizbullah supporters, worried they'll come down on the wrong side of history if they stick with the Syrians, are "wrapping themselves in the mantle of Lebanese aspirations for independence," he says. "It's in our interest to make them choose." Still, there's no guarantee Washington will like the result.

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