Sunday, July 30, 2006

State within a state thrives in the south

Amir Taheri, The Australian:
SINCE 1984, Iran has created branches of Hezbollah in more than 20 countries. None has equalled the success of the Lebanese branch, which until recently enjoyed something akin to cult status among Arabs, including non-Muslims, because of the way it stood up to Israel. READ MORE

It has not even cost Iran very much. Hezbollah was launched with just $32 million. After that, according to best estimates, Iran spent $78 million to $131 million a year on its Lebanese assets. Even adding the cost of training Hezbollah fighters and equipping them with hardware, Hezbollah -- the strongest fighting force in the Middle East after Iran and Israel -- has not cost Iran more than $3 billion over two decades.

According to Naim Kassem, Hezbollah's No2, the party has an annual budget of $680million, much of which comes from businesses set up by the movement. These include a bank, a mortgage co-operative, an insurance company, a travel agency, several hotels, a chain of supermarkets and a number of urban bus and taxi companies.

In its power base in southern Lebanon, it is possible for a visitor to spend a whole week without stepping outside a Hezbollah business unit: the hotel he checks into, the restaurant he eats in, the taxi that takes him around, the guide who shows him the sights and the shop where he buys souvenirs all belong to the party.

Hezbollah is a state within the Lebanese state. It controls 25 per cent of the national territory. Almost 400,000 of Lebanon's estimated four million inhabitants live under its control. It collects its own taxes with a 20 per cent levy on all income. It runs its own schools, where a syllabus produced in Iran is taught at all levels. It also runs clinics, hospitals, social welfare networks and centres for orphans and widows.

The party controls the elected municipal councils and appoints local officials, who in theory should be selected by the central Government in Beirut. To complete its status as a virtual state, the party maintains a number of unofficial "embassies".

Hezbollah also has its own media, including a satellite television channel, al-Manar (the lighthouse), which is watched all over the Arab world, four radio stations, newspapers and magazines plus a book-publishing venture. The party has its own system of justice based on sharia law and operates its own police force, courts and prisons. Hezbollah runs youth clubs, several soccer teams and a number of matrimonial agencies.

Its relationship with the rest of Lebanon is complex; it occupies 14 seats in the 128-seat national assembly and holds two portfolios in the council of ministers. But it still describes itself as "a people-based movement fighting on behalf of the Muslim world".

The backbone of all that is Hezbollah's militia, a fighting force of about 8000 men, trained and armed with the latest weapons by Iran and Syria. Of these, about 2000 men represent an elite force under the direct command of the party's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah. But the party also claims more than 30,000 reservists.