Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ties between predominantly Shiite Iran and Hezbollah alarm government

By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI- Associated Press SAKSAKIYEH, LEBANON — The Iranian engineer peered through a huge hole in the bridge, hit during an Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon's coastal highway, and saw that a concrete column had shifted slightly. "We have to bring down the entire structure and build from scratch," said Hussam Khoshnevis, who was sent by his president, Mahmoud Ahmadinjad, to oversee Iran's extensive reconstruction program in Lebanon following last summer's devastating 34-day war between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. The bridge outside the southern village of Saksakiyeh is one of 27 Iran is repairing. Iran is one of many foreign nations helping Lebanon recover from war damage. But the close ties between the predominantly Shiite Muslim country and Hezbollah, the militant Shiite political movement whose name means "Party of God," has alarmed the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his allies. Lebanese complain that their country has become the latest battlefield in Washington's confrontation with Tehran. The government and its allies argue that Tehran engineered the current crisis that has taken the country to the brink of civil war, with deadly street clashes between Hezbollah supporters and their rivals. Reports from Tehran say Iranian leaders are unhappy that the protests got out of control and have asked Hezbollah to cool the situation. Iran watchers say the Islamic Republic's political influence is backed up by the biggest donation it has made to Hezbollah — an estimated $1.2 billion in 2006, compared with under $100 million in a typical year. Similarly, the war has drawn Saniora's government dramatically closer to the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Beirut and called Saniora an ally. Hezbollah and Iran believe — as do many Lebanese — that Saniora's government makes its decisions in consultation with U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, who visits pro-government leaders almost daily. Late last month, the United States announced $770 million in new aid, more than three times the Bush administration's previous commitment and also triple what Iran has pledged. But Iran has already gained gratitude from Shiites, Lebanon's largest sect, not least for the $300 million in cash that Hezbollah paid to families who lost homes in Israel's bombardment, and Khoshnevis says Iran will go on spending whatever it takes to repair the war damage. "The Zionist enemy destroys, and Iran's Islamic Republic builds," says a banner near bombed buildings in a Shiite-populated suburb of the capital, Beirut. Similar banners are seen in wrecked Shiite villages. Unwelcome influence Novelist and anthropologist Iman Humaydan, a member of the Druse sect, says she fears that Tehran's influence could replace Lebanon's cosmopolitan culture with conservative Islam. "The Iranian regime is based on religion. America ... doesn't scare me as much," Humaydan said. "America hasn't set up institutions in Lebanon that would affect the fabric of society." Iran's generosity does have a sectarian side — one aim is to strengthen Lebanon's downtrodden Shiite community. But it may be reluctant to push Islamic influence too far, having learned from past failed efforts by Hezbollah how difficult it would be to impose Islamic laws on a country with a variety of faiths and a history of tolerance.

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