MERJ 'UYUN, Lebanon --Lebanese army soldiers, with the nation's red, white and cedar tree flag waving from trucks and vintage armored personnel carriers, began crossing the Litani River at dawn yesterday in a deployment that was more about symbolism than security.
The Lebanese army's move into the southern fiefdom that Hezbollah controlled for nearly two decades marked the potential beginning of a diplomatic way out of the bitter monthlong conflict with Israel, whose vaunted army bogged down against a smaller force of skilled and entrenched guerrillas.
But while Israel and the United States have said the Lebanese army is supposed to disarm Hezbollah under the terms of a United Nations Security Council resolution, the reality on the ground is a kind of murky, backroom deal in which Hezbollah takes its weapons off the street and the army will not look too hard for them - if at all.
"Well, it's not like they will be breaking into houses, searching every store, looking into every ravine," said Mohammed Chatah, an adviser to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. "It's not a search-and-seizure operation."
But if the deployment was largely for show, it was one that the combatants seemed willing to accept - with a few belligerent proclamations - as a face-saving way out of the bloody impasse.
The agreement at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday to deploy the army as part of the U.N. resolution to halt the fighting brought convoluted explanations from Lebanese officials.
"There will be no confrontation between the army and the brothers in Hezbollah," said Information Minister Ghazi Aridi. "They are not going to chase or, God forbid, exert revenge."
Israeli officials were not quite so tolerant, at least in public. Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Segev, said the resolution "clearly calls for the creation of a Hezbollah-free zone south of the Litani River, and anything less would mean the resolution is not being implemented."
The deployment had overtones of a photo opportunity. A Lebanese soldier in this town whose barracks was a hub of the deployment, stood atop his armored personnel carrier, fiddling with the Lebanese flag for a rank of photographers.
"I'm working on it," he shouted down to the photographers.
Lebanese army engineers put a steel bridge over the Litani River, the natural geographic border to the south. Other troops went over mountain highways and some were to go by ship to the port of Tyre.
Thousands of soldiers landed in towns throughout the south yesterday, taking up positions in makeshift camps, houses and even a hospital, meeting the requirements of the U.N.-negotiated cease-fire and hoping to impose the government's will over the area.
But as soldiers barreled down highways looking authoritative, built bridges, bumped into cars and waved to onlookers, their exhibition of military might was marred by apparent inexperience and nervousness.
In Kafr Kila, a Hezbollah stronghold so close to the border fence that residents could watch Israeli farmers picking fruit, a boisterous funeral procession led by a Hezbollah ambulance blared funeral music from loudspeakers. Yellow Hezbollah flags flapped from the cars.
Nearby, bearded young men were stringing up a giant yellow Hezbollah banner outside a store. It was one of many in nearby villages, one of which, in English referred to a phrase from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had said that a "new Middle East" would arise from bloodshed in Lebanon.
"Rice, you will not see your new Middle East," it said, signed: Hezbollah.
One of the men, wearing tinted sunglasses and, as usual, refusing to give his name, said the army deployment was just fine with him. "It's really good; let them come," he said, untangling the blue rope attached to the sign. "We are all Lebanese. It's not a problem."
So it went across southern Lebanon yesterday, as scores of Lebanese army trucks packed with desks, spare tires and soldiers bounced over narrow, rutted and bombed mountain roads.
In this largely Christian town of blue shutters and stone houses - once a headquarters of an Israeli-backed proxy militia - 31 vehicles, including 12 armored personnel carriers, were lined up on the road in front of the old army base. Soldiers in camouflage, berets and red helmets sat on the backs of trucks and languished in the shade on the sidewalk, waiting for orders to move that, by noon, had not come.
In Tebnine, about an hour's drive east of Tyre, soldiers began taking up positions in and near the central hospital, unloading personal belongings and equipment and quickly setting up their sleeping quarters. They began clearing Israeli cluster munitions, exploding them with big bangs that made many in the area shudder.
The soldiers received an uneasy welcome from the community and Hezbollah. There seemed to be little interaction between the men, as each side politely greeted the other but kept their distance.
Many villagers greeted the troops with the traditional showers of rice and flowers given to conquerors. There seemed a hope - however fragile - that the army could be a symbolic, unifying force in this country, divided by 17 religions and so often the battlefield plaything of outside forces.
The Lebanese field commander of the initial force, Brig. Gen. Charles Shikani, tried to strike that note, telling his soldiers, "The Lebanese people are waiting for you.
"We salute on this solemn day, firstly the martyrs who have shed their blood on the earth of the motherland. And we salute the resistance," he said.