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Hizbollah and Its Changing Identities

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Abstract:

During the last week, the confrontation between the Lebanese government and Hizbollah has reached a critical point. A Hizbollah call for a general strike on January 23, enforced by barriers of burning tires on all major roads--giving people no choice but to stay home--brought the country to the brink of violence. Two days later, fighting erupted among students at the Beirut Arab University, quickly spilling over onto the streets. After the war of last summer, Lebanon had settled back into a pretense of normality, shattered periodically by massive demonstrations in the streets of the capital, as Hizbollah mustered its supporters in an attempt to force the government to call for early elections. The government refused to give in. Hizbollah is now trying to break the impasse.

From Washington, the crisis in Lebanon looks like a confrontation between a moderate, prowestern government and a radical movement doing the bidding of Iran--the western tip of the Shiite crescent through which Teheran hopes to impose itself as the dominant power in the Middle East. From Lebanon, Hizbollah looks like a movement trying to reconcile three identities and agendas increasingly at odds with each other, and blundering in the process. One Hizbollah is the movement that looks to Iran for support and is a player in the new geopolitical game of the Middle East. A second Hizbollah is the resistance movement that gained heroic stature last summer in the eyes of all Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites alike, for standing up to Israel and depriving it of a military victory. And there is a third Hizbollah, a player in the Lebanese domestic political scene, seeking to increase its power and change the byzantine rules by which politics is played in the country.