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    Middle East
     Jul 22, 2006
The arms that keep Hezbollah fighting
By Jason Motlagh

Nearly a quarter-century after Israeli forces pummeled Beirut to the hellish crescendo of an explosion every three seconds, a rebuilt capital crumbles one artillery strike at a time as Israel seeks to wipe out the enemy it spawned.

Israeli officials have stated in no uncertain terms their intent to bomb the radical Shi'ite movement Hezbollah into submission and "change the equation" to end further missile attacks over the border.

But Hezbollah today bristles with a weapons inventory far beyond the suicide tactics used in the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy

and marine barracks a year later that first minted its name in terror.

Western intelligence officials and experts say the Iran-sponsored militants have stockpiled enough firepower to sustain a protracted fight against the Jewish state that, while asymmetrical, threatens all of northern Israel and possibly much further.

Katyusha rockets, the longtime staple of Hezbollah's arsenal, have rained down on Israel at the consistent rate of about 100 per day since fighting erupted on July 12 after its kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers over the border. It is estimated that militants have between 10,000 and 12,000 Katyushas, of which roughly 3% have been used to date. If Hezbollah kept up the current volume of its barrages, fighting could go on until early October, John Pike, director of military studies group GlobalSecurity.org, told Asia Times Online.

Unfortunately, this bleak outlook is shared by both Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli army chief of staff Dan Halutz projected in an address to Israel Defense Forces this week that the military campaign in Lebanon "may continue for an extended period of time".

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, the target of 23 tonnes' worth of Israeli bombs on Wednesday, told Al-Jazeera television that Hezbollah would not surrender the abducted Israeli troops "even if the whole universe comes [against us]", without a prisoner exchange. Other reports indicate he soon intends to order "hundreds" of long-range missiles to be fired at Tel Aviv - a move Israeli officials insist would spell doomsday not only for Hezbollah, but for benefactors Iran and Syria.

Military analysts are uncertain as to the extent of Hezbollah's mid- and long-range missile stocks, but most concur with Israeli intelligence that they include the Iranian-made Fajr-3, with a 45-kilometer range, and maybe the 200km Zelzal, which in theory could reach as far as Tel Aviv.

New evidence of Hezbollah's upgraded operational capacity came in the form of a crippling strike on an Israeli warship on July 14, attributed to a radar-guided C-802 missile of Iranian origin. This has prompted some Israeli officials and military officers to trumpet fresh justification for a preemptive move against Iran, whose president has famously called for Israel's erasure from the map of the Middle East.

However, questions linger over Iran's role in the latest crisis. "It's hard to tell if the current festivities are driven by internal, local considerations peculiar to Hezbollah or are manifestations of [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad's grand strategy," Pike said, stressing that whatever the reality was, the situation was inherently fluid and subject to change.

Encouraging Hezbollah action as Iran's frontline arm against Israel could work in Iran's favor without major backlash, he said, pending the strategy succeeds in mobilizing the Arab and Muslim worlds against a common enemy for a later showdown.

It's no secret that Tehran's material support for Hezbollah has continued ever since it founded the movement in 1982 to oust Israel from Lebanon. Iran remains as keen as ever to export its Shi'ite Islamic revolution further afield, some would argue, to lay the groundwork for a fated apocalypse.

But the mullahocracy today provides aid and arms to the tune of $25 million to $50 million a year, according to GlobalSecurity.org, much less than the hundreds of millions prior reports have claimed.

Charges that advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have increased their presence in Lebanon are also under dispute. Significant numbers of IRGC personnel have traveled to the region in years past, yet the "days of IRGC-led training camps in Lebanon seem to be over", Anthony Cordesman, a strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, said in a report released on Tuesday. "Until there are hard facts, Iran's role in all of this is a matter of speculation," he wrote.

As for assertions that Hezbollah has received upgraded weapons technologies and long-range rockets from Iran to stir trouble in the Mideast at Tehran's behest, Cordesman contends they are "best guess" estimates, arguing that Hezbollah uses Iran "as much as it is used".

Experts do agree that despite the poor accuracy of Hezbollah's short-range missiles, which can seldom be relied on for more than a "lucky strike" on target, they are still effective.

Short-range Hezbollah missiles are almost impossible to overcome by Israel's advanced missile defenses because of their minimal trajectory. And recent launches against the northern port city of Haifa demonstrate that sporadic, random strikes can paralyze urban populations. According to Pike, even if Hezbollah cuts back rocket launches from 100 a day to 10 every other day to preserve stockpiles as time wears on, they would have in large part succeeded. "It's not so much the fact that Israelis are killed," he said, "but that the fear of being killed is sown."

Hezbollah's use of southern Lebanon as a staging ground for mortar and rocket attacks against Israeli military outposts and civilian areas has kept Israel off balance since 1982, a status quo it wants to end by relentless bombardment.

This has entailed strikes on Hezbollah's primary headquarters in southern Beirut to cut off communications links - with unprecedented civilian collateral damage. But recent cases in Iraq and Afghanistan show that air campaigns are doomed to fail unless they are backed by full-fledged ground forces, a strategy Israel is loath to employ after an 18-year Lebanon occupation that bled them out of the country.

Still, limited numbers of Israeli special forces have already made incursions into southern Lebanon to root out militants and destroy hidden weapons caches/launchers.

Israeli military planners wanted to carve out space to pave the way for larger ground forces, the New York Times reported on Thursday. They are also trying to "create enough pain on the ground so there would be a local political reaction to Hezbollah's adventurism", Edward P Djererian, former US ambassador to both Israel and Syria, told the Times.

Gun battles raged along the border on Thursday, with Israel warning residents of the region to flee "immediately" in an apparent signal a ground offensive to secure a buffer zone draws nearer.

But as infrastructure is shattered and the death toll mounts - 330 Lebanese killed, mostly civilians, and more than half a million displaced as of Thursday night - the grassroots population will be progressively less inclined to throw their weight behind moves to rein in Hezbollah.

Iran, lurking in the shadows, stands to benefit the longer Hezbollah intransigence can hold out. Its gift of short-range weapons has enabled Tehran to wage a survivable proxy fight, coordinated or not, that distracts international attention from its underground nuclear activities.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah "shows the Arab and Muslim world that Iran is a government willing to strike at the Israeli enemy - even though it is not Arab or Sunni", Cordesman noted. "Israel's reprisals ... make it seem in Arab and Muslim eyes as if Iran supports 'freedom fighters'."

Hezbollah's Nasrallah recently declared that Israel had created "a historic opportunity to score a defeat against the Zionist enemy". Taken literally, this is absurd; in a symbolic sense, there lies a heavy grain of truth.

Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in Washington, DC. He has reported freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean for various US and European news media.

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The drums of war sound for Iran (Jul 21, '06)

Lebanon left for dead (Jul 21, '06)

It's not just about Hezbollah (Jul 20, '06)

Leviathan run amok (Jul 19, '06)

Hezbollah and the art of the possible (Jul 18, '06)


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