Thursday, August 10, 2006

A critic amid cheers for Hezbollah

Liz Sly, Chicago Tribune:
Ensconced in his ancestral castle, perched high in the mountains above Beirut, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is articulating some boldly unorthodox views on the conflict engulfing his country.

As a fierce critic of Hezbollah and its role in provoking a war with Israel, Jumblatt has emerged as a lone voice of dissent amid the clamor of pro-Hezbollah cheerleading that has gripped much of Lebanon and turned Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah into a national hero.

"If I were opportunistic, I would tell you now, `Long live Nasrallah.' I am not going to tell you that," he says in an interview at the 300-year-old castle. "I know my position is not popular, in the Arab world or in Lebanon. But I will stick to my position."

In the view of this one-time warlord turned politician, Hezbollah is fighting not on behalf of Lebanon but as a proxy of Syria and Iran, pursuing an agenda to challenge America that ultimately will lead to Lebanon's ruin. That Hezbollah ultimately will win he does not doubt.

"But what price?" he asks. "What is the price?" READ MORE

Similar concerns were expressed in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the war. Israel's harsh response and Hezbollah's fierce resistance have since convinced many in Lebanon that Hezbollah was not to blame and that Israel clearly was bent on destroying Lebanon anyway.

With patriotic fervor at a peak and bombs raining down across the country, it is now considered politically incorrect to challenge Hezbollah. An opinion poll conducted late last month by the Beirut Center for Research and Information indicated that 87 percent of Lebanese support the Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalist movement.

Jumblatt says he understands the surge in support for Hezbollah. "Their fighters have done a good job defying and defeating the Israeli army, OK," he says. "But the question we ask is where their allegiance goes: to a Lebanese strong central authority or somewhere else?"

In the Maronite Christian heartland north of Beirut, many ordinary Christians openly curse Hezbollah for triggering Israel's attacks on their country. Others may privately share Jumblatt's concerns.

But Jumblatt is the only political leader regularly and publicly warning against the consequences of a Hezbollah victory, which he believes would bring Lebanon under the tutelage of Iran and Syria once again--as it was in the 1980s.

His rhetoric won't sound new to Americans. In his denunciations of Syria's President Bashar Assad--"that wicked guy"--and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--"that crazy guy"--he sounds as critical as President Bush. "The Iranian empire is in Lebanon," he declares dramatically.

`Aggression' of Israel

But he is just as angry with what he terms "the brutal, irresponsible aggression" of Israel and with the "total failure" of American policy in the Middle East.

"It's a big power play between the Iranians and the Syrians, and on the other side the Americans and the Israelis," he says. "And we are in the middle."

With his scuffed leather jacket, his faded jeans and his perpetually vexed expression, he exudes the air of a disillusioned college professor who blames the world for failing to take him seriously.

But his disorderly appearance and gloomy demeanor belie the stature he enjoys as the leader of the 200,000-strong Druze minority--a small offshoot of Islam--and also as one of the country's most powerful politicians.

He inherited the leadership of the Druze clan in 1977, at the height of the civil war, after his father was assassinated by the Syrians. Though only 27 at the time, he quickly became one of the country's most powerful warlords, leveraging the weight of his small Druze militia through a series of carefully chosen alliances.

Like most other warlords, he switched sides regularly, first opposing Syria's intervention in Lebanon, then joining with the Shiites to support Syria during the years of Israel's occupation, and then turning against Syria in 1999 as Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon loomed. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Jumblatt was instrumental in fostering the Cedar Revolution that drove Syrian troops out of Lebanon.

His influence is attributable in part to his uncanny tendency to line up behind the winning side--often well before the outcome is clear--which is one reason he has outlived and outmaneuvered many of his peers.

Pessimism about outcome

But he is not confident that his views will prevail in this crisis, from which he glumly predicts no favorable outcome. He offers no answers or solutions.

"We had a dream of an independent Lebanon, we had a dream of stability, and now it's a shambles."

Behind the thick stone walls of his castle, surrounded by antiques and family heirlooms, he seems cut off from the chaos unfolding elsewhere in the country. Apart from a few blown-up bridges, his enclave has been untouched. Unlike most Lebanese, he refuses to watch the continuous television coverage of the war. "One more bomb, one less bomb. . . . All I know is that my country is being scorched, destroyed," he says wearily.

He does, however, tune in for the periodic televised addresses by Nasrallah, who has pointedly addressed Jumblatt's criticisms. In one comment, aimed at those who have challenged him, he offered a veiled warning: "This will be left for some day to settle accounts," he said. "We might be tolerant with them and we might not."

Jumblatt shrugs off the implied threat. But he has frequently in the past expressed the conviction that the Syrians will one day try to kill him, as they killed his father. Since Hariri's assassination, he has rarely left his mountain fiefdom. Security at his castle is tight: No vehicles or cell phones are allowed beyond the gates and all visitors are carefully searched.

Now, however, fatalism seems to have overtaken fear.

"That's trivial," he says when asked about his concerns for his safety. "I don't think about it. When they will come, they will come."