Indictment Could Be Blow to Lebanon's Hezbollah

December 29, 2010 - 9:25 AM

Beirut (AP) - Hezbollah says looming indictments by a U.N. court for the assassination of a former prime minister are of no concern to the group. Hezbollah's leader, in fact, says he is so relaxed he sleeps an extra hour every night.

Behind the veneer of confidence, however, analysts say the Shiite Lebanese group is deeply worried at the impact of what will likely be charges against some of its members. At the least, it could be a blow to one of the movement's most important foundations -- its reputation.

For decades, Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah has gained support by depicting itself as a pure resistance movement, clean of corruption, aimed only at defending Lebanese against neighboring Israel. Instead, indictments would plant a new image in the mind of some Lebanese: a movement willing to turn its weapons against fellow Lebanese to carry out a political assassination.

That could weaken Hezbollah's position in sharply divided Lebanon, undermining one of its main justifications for maintaining its large arsenal, which make it the most powerful military force in the country.

"One of Hezbollah's main strengths is its reputation in the Arab and Islamic world as a resistance movement fighting Israeli occupation," said Ibrahim Bayram, an analyst with An-Nahar newspaper who closely follows Hezbollah affairs. "This will definitely tarnish its image in the Arab world."

That could turn into more than just an image problem. Hezbollah's enemies may see the group as weakened and vulnerable. "In the eyes of Israel, America and the West, Hezbollah will be accused. It will become a rogue entity that is more easily targeted. This may provide a pretext for others to pounce on it," Bayram said.

In the worst case scenario, the indictments could cause the collapse of Lebanon's fragile unity government and spark new fighting between Shiite Hezbollah and Sunnis. Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each make up about a third of Lebanon's four million people.

The 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a suicide bombing that killed 22 other people both stunned and polarized Lebanese. Hariri, a Sunni, was a hero to his Sunni community and backed by many Christians who sympathized with his efforts in the last few months of his life to reduce Syrian influence in the country. A string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and public figures followed, which U.N. investigators have said may have been connected to the Hariri killing.

The Netherlands-based tribunal has not said who it will indict, but Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has said he has information it will be members of his group.

Hezbollah has responded by staunchly denying any role in the assassination, denouncing the court as a conspiracy against it and demanding that its fellow Lebanese publicly stand by it -- something its rivals have so far resisted doing.

Already the impending indictments have paralyzed Lebanon's government, an uneasy partnership between Hezbollah and Western-backed factions led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the slain leader's son.

Nasrallah demands the government publicly discredit any findings by the tribunal, but Hariri has refused to break cooperation with the court. Hezbollah officials have reportedly said they will not sit on the same table with a prime minister who accepts an accusation that they were behind the death of his father.

Hezbollah has also pressed on the case of the "false witnesses" -- witnesses who reportedly gave false information to U.N. investigators to implicate Syria in the Hariri killing. The case is sensitive because close associates of Saad Hariri are alleged to have bribed the witnesses to do so.

Hezbollah demands that the Cabinet vote to send the case to the Higher Judicial Council, which handles political and state security crimes. The lower courts where Hariri and his supporters want it handled are seen as more under Hariri's control.

Hezbollah and its allies refuse to attend any Cabinet meeting that does not vote on the issue, while Hariri has reportedly vowed to walk out of any meeting that decides to hold a vote. As a result, the Cabinet has met only once since Nov. 10, and that single meeting lasted only a few minutes. State institutions have been deadlocked.

In a recent speech, Nasrallah denied he was worried, saying, "I have been sleeping an extra hour each day for the past few months." Talking tough, Hezbollah has threatened to "cut off the arm" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members.

But Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland who advises the U.S. government on Lebanon, said Hezbollah faces hard choices, none of which are good.

"Right now, Hezbollah is thinking of ways to weather the storm," he said.

He said a violent reaction by the group can throw the country into turmoil and reawaken the various armed Sunni jihadi groups that are present in Lebanon. A political reaction that seeks to overthrow the government may buy Hezbollah some time but is not sustainable in the long term, he said.

The group has already suffered setbacks that affected its image among some in the Arab world, first when it was forced to use its weapons to battle Hariri loyalists in May 2008 -- something it had vowed never to do.

Hezbollah and its rivals are now relying on mediation by Syria and Saudi Arabia, their respective international patrons, to try and reach a settlement that would allow both camps to step back.

"The problem (in Lebanon) is in its total dependance on the outside and internal inability to carry out any national role," wrote columnist Rafik Khoury in the daily Al-Anwar.

"We are not able to rule ourselves."