Road to Mideast peace still a difficult journey

Even if the U.N.-imposed cease-fire holds beyond its implementation Monday, the road to truly ending the Hezbollah-Israel conflict is fraught with difficulties. A dizzying set of conflicting interests could quickly fracture the truce.

Israel refuses to withdraw before U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese troops arrive in the south and Hezbollah guerrillas move north of the Litani River.

The Lebanese army says it won’t deploy to the region while Hezbollah remains armed there — but the guerrillas refuse to give up their weapons in the south.

The U.N. peacekeepers, meanwhile, won’t go until Lebanese troops replace Hezbollah fighters.

Bloodied but standing, Hezbollah has declared itself victorious and says it won’t end its fight until Israel withdraws.

The Lebanese government, under pressure to retake control of the south from Hezbollah, is divided over sections of the U.N. peace plan that call for disarming the guerrillas.

The Cabinet’s two Hezbollah ministers reportedly insisted the guerrillas will not disarm, igniting a dispute that forced the postponement of a meeting Sunday to discuss implementation of the U.N. plan.

Hezbollah is known to have underground bunkers where its rocket teams have withstood four weeks of intense Israeli airstrikes. Pulling weapons out of the border zone would render Hezbollah arms elsewhere in the country pointless against Israel, effectively disarming the Shiite militia.

The White House said Saturday it was determined to vanquish the hold of Hezbollah — and that of its Syrian and Iranian benefactors — over the south.

But surrendering weapons held by fighters in the south would be politically difficult for Hezbollah. The U.N. cease-fire deal failed to address its key demands: the return of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails and an Israeli evacuation of the disputed Chebaa Farms territory.

Lebanon has agreed to dispatch 15,000 soldiers to the south. The U.N. resolution says the force eventually will be joined by an equal number of U.N. peacekeeping troops, while Israeli forces, who have pushed deep into the south, must withdraw.

Israel wants to ensure Hezbollah no longer has the ability to fire rockets at its communities and is unable to rearm. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held Lebanon responsible for future attacks.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah on Saturday said he would abide by the cease-fire and cooperate with the U.N. force and the Lebanese army. But he also vowed to continue fighting as long as Israeli troops occupy Lebanese territory.

He did not say his guerrillas would leave their positions or hand over their weapons in the south. That suggests they will just store their weapons and melt into the local Shiite Muslim population.

The Lebanese army, which has long coordinated with Hezbollah, now says it alone must be in charge of an area over which Hezbollah has held sway for years.

“There won’t be weapons except those of the state,” Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told reporters after Saturday’s Cabinet meeting.

Before the conflict, anti-Syria politicians — the largest bloc in parliament since Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon a year ago — had been pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament. But the task has become more politically dangerous.

Hezbollah and the government — even politicians hostile to Hezbollah — stood united against the Israeli onslaught. Cracks in that solidarity began to emerge after the U.N. Security Council adopted the cease-fire resolution Friday.

A head-on confrontation with Hezbollah could split the military and lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s government.

“It’s a pity that we delay deciding on these issues and suffer more martyrs and destruction,” Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, a member of the anti-Syrian bloc, said in an interview on Al-Arabiya television.

Hamadeh said it was time to spare the country more suffering. Lebanon has won by withstanding the onslaught, he said, but at the same time, “we cannot let Lebanon be totally destroyed.”

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.