Mission impossible? The Middle East war has presented Lebanon's long-neglected army, the victim of sectarian politics and Syrian intrigue, its greatest challenge as the beleaguered government struggles to assert its authority.

Author:Blanche, Ed
 
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THE LEBANESE ARMY, a force that since its inception has reflected the country's sectarian divisions, took no part in the war between Hizbullah and Israel. Indeed, poorly equipped and without any real military punch, it often seemed like a helpless bystander in a conflict that devastated Lebanon just as the country was putting the finishing touches to a massive reconstruction programme that followed the ruinous 1975-90 civil war.

But now, the 60,000-strong army may well be the lynchpin of the 14 August United Nations-brokered ceasefire--and indeed, Lebanon's future status depends on how the military performs in the coming months. Efforts by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to restore state authority and sovereignty over the entire country for the first time in nearly 40 years rest to a large extent on whether the army can carry out its new mission.

The military is facing its gravest challenge, one that could for the first time in its history forge it into a truly national force following nearly three decades of Syrian domination that ended in April 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

The Israelis, and many Lebanese, fear that the planned deployment of some 15,000 Lebanese troops in south Lebanon--where Hizbullah has held undisputed sway since the Israeli Army unilaterally withdrew from the region in May 2000 after 22 years of occupation--and along the equally sensitive border with Syria, Hizbullah's supply lifeline, is more like mission impossible. The Syrians and their proxies in Lebanon do not want to see a strong central government in Beirut. There hasn't been one for decades and that's how they want things to stay.

Under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which forms the framework of the ceasefire, the Lebanese Army has responsibility, along with a planned 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, for disarming Hizbullah. The Shi'ite movement, backed by Iran and Syria, refuses to do so and the Lebanese deployment in Shi'ite-dominated south Lebanon, the main battleground of the summer war, is seen by many as little more than a political showpiece that could eventually wreck the fragile ceasefire.

The army's 2nd, 3rd and 10th Brigades have fanned out across the region south of the Litani River--the limit of the Israeli advance in August aimed at establishing a cordon sanitaire between there and the border to prevent Hizbullah attacks--since the deployment began three days after the ceasefire took hold.

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