Lebanon: Hizbullah Awaits the Next Round

Even as Hizbullah leaders cut a deal to remove their troops from Beirut's streets last week, the Islamist group's on-the-ground commanders were quietly making plans to consolidate their military gains. "Our units are still patrolling the area," said one Hizbullah military commander, who asked not to be identified because he didn't have authorization from his superior. "We still have guns, but we're hiding them now." The Islamists are particularly focused on expanding their network of intelligence collection. Starting about a year ago, Hizbullah operatives began meticulously surveilling Sunni security guards with close ties to Saad Hariri's Future Movement, according to the Hizbullah commander. By the time fighting erupted in Beirut two weeks ago, the operatives had compiled a comprehensive list of names and phone numbers that were used to intimidate Sunni enemies during the fighting. As Hizbullah's guerrilla army swept through Beirut's streets, operatives phoned the Sunni gunmen they had been shadowing. "How are you?" the unidentified caller would begin. "How's your wife?" And then: "We can see you now. You have three minutes to evacuate."

At a safe house in Beirut's predominantly Shiite southern suburb of Dahiya last week, the Hizbullah commander triumphantly showed a NEWSWEEK reporter photographs from the clashes that he had taken on his cell phone. Yet the militant—sporting a green Dolce & Gabbana baseball cap, wraparound sunglasses and a Browning pistol tucked into his jeans—believes "we're still in a state of war." The commander says Hizbullah is also prepared for renewed fighting with Israel. In recent months the Islamists have imported batches of new Russian-made Kalashnikovs and other arms.

Still, Hizbullah's political leadership knows that long-term fighting is likely to harm the guerrillas' image in the eyes of ordinary Lebanese. "The prospect of Sunni-Shiite strife has always been Hizbullah's Achilles' heel," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hizbullah scholar in Beirut. That's one more reason why Hizbullah believes low-profile intel operations could work better than open war. Before leaving, the Hizbullah commander offered one last piece of advice. "I'm being followed," he said quietly. "You're being followed." The message: even if Hizbullah's forces have largely left Beirut's streets, its invisible eyes remain.