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The Seattle Times August 03, 2006

3 weeks in, Hezbollah surprises with its might

By The Associated Press and The Washington Post

CAIRO, Egypt — Hezbollah has fired rockets as far as the West Bank, knocked out Israeli tanks and damaged a warship — and had plenty of time to booby-trap all of southern Lebanon. It is hardly a typical guerrilla group, equipped only with bravado and AK-47 assault rifles.

Three weeks into its war with Israel, Hezbollah has retained its presence in southern Lebanon, and its ability to keep firing rockets has been a source of surprise and dismay to Israeli commanders, officials and the public.

In addition, Hezbollah's use of relatively advanced weapons and the variety of its armaments have surprised U.S. military experts, according to current and former officials involved in Middle East policy.

The group has gained attributes more often associated with a national military — fixed training bases, rocket-launching facilities, well-trained artillerymen — than with a guerrilla or terrorist group, they said.

"The analysis around here is they have more expertise than the Lebanese military," said one senior U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The militant group has proved elusive to Israeli commanders. Communication is by walkie-talkies, always in code, and sometimes messages are delivered by motorcycle. Weapons are in place across a terrain fighters say they know intimately.

"On the ground, face to face, we're better fighters than the Israelis," said Hajj Abu Mohammed, 44, a bearded Hezbollah militiaman in the village of Srifa, whose walkie-talkie crackled and cellphone rang with a Hezbollah anthem.

Israel has claimed to have destroyed Hezbollah's infrastructure in a campaign that has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes in Lebanon and wrecked village after village along valleys sometimes charred by fires.

Hezbollah admits having suffered losses, but so far, it has demonstrated the fruits of its detailed planning since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

The group has had six years to ready its defenses, set deadly traps and store munitions in tunnels and bunkers hewn into the rocky, mountainous terrain of southern Lebanon.

It also had time to get "some good tough training" and fill its ranks with fighters who are "not just hoods picked up off the streets of Gaza City," said Robin Hughes of Jane's Defence Weekly.

Hezbollah fighters appear to exercise a great deal of autonomy, a flexibility evident along the region's back roads: ammunition loaded in cars, trucks in camouflage, rocket launchers tucked in banana plantations.

Fighters and supporters suggest time is their friend in a war many suspect won't have a conclusive end.

"We are waiting," said Jamal Nasser, a Hezbollah fighter in the southern Lebanese village of Juwaya. "We are here, and we're not going anywhere."

Already, Hezbollah has proved more formidable than Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. In eight days of fighting in the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbail, Israel lost 18 soldiers, its heaviest casualties since the conflict began in Lebanon. Israel withdrew, saying it never intended to capture it. "The engagement with Hezbollah will be different than the type of stuff the Israelis have met with Hamas; it's a different type of animal," Hughes said by telephone from London.

Other experts cited the importance of the fighters' will; even Lebanese critics remark on the devotion of the Hezbollah fighters.

"The most important element about this war is its moral dimension. Hezbollah has prepared itself for this war, its fighters have been indoctrinated to fight until victory," said Nizar Abdel Kader, a military analyst and retired Lebanese army general.

"This type of indoctrination creates a mood of competition among fighters: competition over bravery, over performance and over who is going to be a martyr first," he said. "This is a key element to combat performance."

In addition to fighting skills, Hezbollah has a system for resupplying fighters at the front, missiles to hit targets in Israel, tanks in Lebanon and communications sophisticated enough to monitor some Israeli military communications, Hughes and others said.

It also benefits from the fact the fighting, so far, has been the type where "guerrillas have the advantage," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterinsurgency expert at Washington's RAND Corp.

"They know the area, they've had the opportunity to lay traps and ambushes," he said. "There's no way [for Israel] to do it except to root forces out on the ground. And it certainly can be done, but there's going to be a lot of bloodshed."

Israeli forces were doing that Wednesday: going from village to village clearing them of guerrillas. Hezbollah was putting up resistance, but Israeli officials said they were confident they would reach positions four miles into Lebanon by today.

In response, Hezbollah fired a record number of more than 230 rockets into Israel, pushing its total to more than 2,000. Two of those missiles hit Beit Shean and the nearby West Bank, about 42 miles from the Lebanon border, in the deepest strike so far.

"Our missile capacity is still untouched," Mahmoud Qamati, deputy head of Hezbollah's political bureau, said Wednesday in Beirut. "It is sufficient at two levels, in quantity for the missiles they know of, and in quality for those they still don't know about — the type or the range." He added, "We have enough missiles for months."

Hezbollah is believed to have 500 to 600 highly trained fighters, with about five times that many available in reserve, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington think tank. Like any guerrilla army, it can also draw fighters from the civilian population.

The group doesn't have much in terms of heavy weapons such as artillery, but it does have a significant rocket arsenal. Also, before the war, it was believed to have a 12,000 to 13,000 missile stockpile, Pike said, though there is debate about how many are left.

Yet Hezbollah's most important hardware could be a variety of anti-tank weapons, potentially crucial if Israel uses previously successful strategies of encircling pockets of resistance with armor before wiping them out, Hughes said.

Hezbollah also has the Russian-designed RPG-29 anti-tank grenade launcher, which can fire a projectile capable of penetrating the newest and most sophisticated Israeli armor, he said. Most of Hezbollah's equipment is believed to have been supplied by Syria and Iran, with Iran also providing training through its Revolutionary Guards, Hughes and others said. Iran denies providing either.

Israel can probably defeat Hezbollah, many analysts said. But it may have to be flexible, something past battles have shown it does well.

"If there's one military in the world that's especially adept at learning and adapting and adjusting to the situation as it presents itself, it's the Israeli Defense Force," Hoffman said.

He pointed to the large-scale operation it conducted in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus in 2002.

"Initially the Israelis experienced frustrations there as well, but they adapted and adjusted and used very innovative small-unit approaches," he said.

Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

 


Copyright 2006, The Seattle Times Company