MLEETA, Lebanon (AP) — A maze of military bunkers and tunnels carved into a mountain near the border with Israel hints at why the Shiite Hezbollah movement is unlikely to lose its grip in Lebanon despite the setbacks it has suffered because of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Mleeta, a former staging ground for Hezbollah's battles with Israel that has been turned into a sprawling tourist attraction, is emblematic of the base of its power: its arsenal and military prowess.
That base ultimately remains firm, even if Hezbollah has faced sharper criticism among Lebanese for its siding with Syria's regime in the civil war and even if it has reportedly suffered some reduction in aid from its top patron, Iran, squeezed by Western sanctions. Besides its weapons, Hezbollah can also still count on an extensive patronage network, carefully nurtured alliances with religious minorities and alternative sources of funding.
Its backing among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims — who edge out Sunnis and Christians as the country's largest sectarian community — remains strong, and it also dominates the government in place since January 2011.
Even one of the militia's most outspoken critics in the Shiite community said he expects Hezbollah to remain dominant for the time being, even as support for it is eroding.
"Hebzollah still has the means of power, which is weapons, money and the support of the Lebanese government," said Ali al-Amin, a former top cleric in the southern city of Tyre who said he was expelled from his office by Hezbollah agents in 2008.
Certainly, Hezbollah is facing harder times. Misgivings have been growing among some Lebanese that the group is a destabilizing force because of a series of events in recent years. It was implicated by international investigators in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — though it denies a role. It fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006. Its fighters overran the streets of Beirut in a 2008 power struggle. And now it has rushed to back Syrian President Bashar Assad since the uprising against his rule began 19 months ago.
"Politically, they are on the ropes," analyst Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said of Hezbollah. "You see a willingness to challenge Hezbollah that you have never seen before."
The latest political crisis in Lebanon, set off by the assassination of a top intelligence chief by an Oct. 19 car bomb, highlighted both Hezbollah's entrenchment and the backlash against it.
The country's Western-backed opposition, the March 14 alliance, has blamed Hezbollah and Syria for the killing of Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a leading anti-Syrian voice, and has demanded the Hezbollah-dominated government resign. Hezbollah has denied involvement in the attack.
"It's a mafia state," Nadim Koteich, a prominent March 14 activist and TV talk show host, said of Hezbollah's domination of Lebanon. Opposition figures allege al-Hassan was targeted because he uncovered information about purported Syrian attempts to further destabilize Lebanon with the help of Lebanese collaborators.
But at the same time, the Sunni-dominated March 14 has failed to galvanize supporters. After the general's Oct. 21 funeral, only a few dozen March 14 activists tried to storm the castle-like Cabinet building, which has since been declared a no-go zone, ringed by barbed wire barriers and rows of army trucks.
Some blame lack of leadership. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim camp and son of Rafik Hariri, has spent most of his time in Paris since Hezbollah brought down his pro-Western ruling coalition.
Since last month's assassination, U.S. and European diplomats have met with Lebanon's leaders and called for stability. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Lebanese people deserve a government that is not a proxy for outside forces, a clear shot at Hezbollah, but she did not signal further practical moves.
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