Hezbollah leading cleanup


AITA SHAAB, Lebanon -- To enter southern Lebanon these days you drive down roads where traffic is directed by young men in gray Hezbollah civil defense corps T-shirts and past bulldozers from the Holy War for Reconstruction Co.

Hezbollah has emerged as the lead player in the cleanup in southern Lebanon. It has the volunteers, owns the equipment, and has spent years burnishing its image as a champion of the people. Men who were fighting Israeli troops days ago are working beside the Lebanese Red Cross on the grisly job of pulling bodies from the rubble.

"There is no government here," said Abdul Muhsen Husseini, president of the Union of Municipalities of the Tyre region - the man supposed to be in charge - as he handled requests from a stream of petitioners asking for money to buy medicine and what to do with the dead.

"We asked the government in Beirut to accompany the returning people to their villages, to repair water and prepare the roads. "They said to me: 'God willing, we will come.' And they didn't."

In Beirut, the Lebanese Cabinet issued a statement yesterday saying it would "prevent the establishment of any authority outside the state" in southern Lebanon. But here, it is the Shiite Muslim organization Hezbollah, emerging from a month of war with its micro-state of health, education and civil services apparently intact, that calls the shots.

The civilian face of Hezbollah re-emerged quickly after the truce began Monday, when the business of cleaning up from war supplanted the carnage of waging it.

"We are not terrorists," said Faras Jamil, 39, a restaurant owner who was helping the cleanup of the community center in this Shiite border town. "My wife is Hezbollah. My children are Hezbollah. Hezbollah is all the people from this town."

While government officials complain that they are expected to clear shattered towns with nothing but shovels and small bulldozers, Hezbollah already owns or is in the process of renting heavy machinery. Most importantly, it can draw on the manpower needed for the huge reconstruction job. Those factors present a serious challenge to the central government in Beirut and the Bush administration, which is scrambling to launch its own rebuilding effort.

In Aita Shaab, a smoldering ruin just across the valley from Israel, a Hezbollah member moved through the streets yesterday with a video camera to record the condition of each of the town's 700 houses. His survey divided them into buildings that have been destroyed and those with limited damage; he said Hezbollah construction officials will decide whether to fix or rebuild each house.

"That one has limited damage," said Abu Hassan, pointing to a two-story house with gaping holes in the walls and tipping precariously. But he categorized 85 percent of the houses in Aita Shaab as destroyed. And that is just one town. In southern Lebanon, town after town was pummeled by bombs and mortars that left them in shambles.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has promised to rebuild every shattered house and pay each displaced family's rent for a year while the rebuilding goes on. Families of those who were killed will receive salaries for life, Hezbollah members say.

There was no evidence this week of the reports that Hezbollah will hand out cash - $10,000 is the rumored amount - to families left homeless by the fighting.

It is not clear where the money will come from, but the Bush administration has accused Iran of bankrolling the group for years. Iran denies it.

Critics portray Nasrallah's offering as a balm to the civilian victims of this war, to stave off a political backlash from those who have seen friends and family killed during the Israeli bombardment, which Israel said was aimed at suppressing Hezbollah rocket fire. But even critics acknowledge Hezbollah's savvy.

"I was not surprised [by this tactic], because I have seen them do it before after previous wars in 1993 and 1996," said a senior United Nations observer in the south who did not want to be quoted by name. "And they will do it again: rich Shiites from outside Lebanon will fund it. And Hezbollah has the manpower."

Hezbollah's ability to shift from war footing to reconstruction has impressed outside observers.

"The guys come out after the war and they are not smiling, not sad, not tired, just determined," said Dr. Martial Ledecq, a Belgian serving in southern Lebanon with Doctors Without Borders. "Even the doctors are Hezbollah."

Husseini, the regional government official, grudgingly credited Hezbollah and its Shiite allies in the Amal militia.

"At least they are on the ground helping," he said. "If you call them at midnight, they come out to help. They are the government."

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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