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Lebanon's last hope to get back on its feet-the Army

Lebanon's last hope is the Lebanese Army, many Lebanese say. In 1975, however, the Army was the straw that broke the camel's back -- plunging the nation into civil war.

The resurgence of fighting in Lebanon since April has prompted a string of fighting in Lebanon since April has prompted a string of political and diplomatic huddles to arrange not only cease-fires, but also to bandy about suggestions for "natioal reconciliation" is supposed to mean working out a political solution to end nearly seven years of conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people.

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So far, this phrase has proved to be no more than rhetoric tossed about by Lebanese politicians who have yet to back up their words with action.

Until there is political will to make peace, there is no way the Army can be resuscitated to reestablish government rule and physical security for the citizenry, military observers say.

However, there is a group of Lebanese Army officers (both Muslim and Christian, who refused to be named) who disagree vehemently. They, as military men, believe that Lebanon's strife can be stopped only if they ignore the politicians altogether and act as an army.

"All we have to do is take one square block tomorrow, defend it, and safeguard the people. The next week we take the square block next to that one and so on until we are in control of the contry again," one officer explined.

This is the only way the Army can prove itself to the people and restore its credibility in their eyes, he added.

Long before April 1975, when the civil war began, the Army had become controversial with the Muslim and Christian factions within it vying for the control traditionally held by the Christians.

However, as early as autumn 1975, the Christian-dominated high command admitted the unreliability of the Army and cautioned against using it to provide security.

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In spring 1975, the 19,000-strong Army disintegrated. One part joined the ranks of the Sunni Muslim militia, another allied with a Christian militia, and some remained nominally neutral under the government's command. A large fourth section went home.

The Army's image soured even more when some members participated in the stealing and killing of the civil war. Some soldiers stopped people on the streets demanding their identity cards to find out their religion and then killing them if they were adherents of the "wrong" religion, officers admit.

The bitterness from those days has largely faded now.

Although the man in the street readily concedes the Army is now impotent, he is quick to point out that he hopes the Army will eventually get back on its feel to restore not only law and order, but also dignity to the Lebanese.

"When I pull up to a Lebanese Army checkpoints, I feel relieved and smile at the soldier," commented one man who survived the civil war with his respect for law more intact than most.

"When I stop at the other checkpoints [mostly Syrian or Palestinian], I feel such anger toward these people that if I had a grenade with me could blow up the checkpoint without any qualms," he said.

His feelings are far from atypical, but ones voiced safely only to trusted friends and family.

The Army has slowly rebuilt itself to a force of about 25,000 soldiers. The Muslims outnumber the Christians in the rank and file as they did before the war.

Among the officers, however, the Christians still have the edge. Before the war, the ratio was about 65 percent Christian to 35 percent Muslim. Now it is 55 percent Christian to 45 percent Muslim among the lower ranking officers and 60-40 among the higher ranks, officers say.

This balance would be all right if it weren't for those at the top, the officers claim.

They believe those at the top spend too much time playing politics. For instance, they say, politicking has kept in the Army some whose conduct during the war was questionable. This compounds the difficulties of running a military organization, they add.

Military observers point out that the leftist Muslim groups in West Beirut refuse to allow the Army to provide security because they still suspect the Army is a pawn for the Christian militias.

The officers are finding themselves the laughingstock of the numerous militias that exist in Beirut alone. For example, on a day of heavy fighting in the capital, the Army has to fly its staff to the headquarters just north of Christian East Beirut by helicopter.

Army officers cannot guarantee the safety of their own men -- much less stop the fighting across the line dividing the city into its Christian and Muslim halves.

Despite its current feebleness, the Lebanese corps could be revitalized in a year and even now comprise "the best Arab Army," military observers say.

"They could take on any of the groups fighting here -- except the Syrians," one observer commented. The Syrians have about 30,000 peace-keeping forces in Lebanon.

"But they have many more just across the border who could be moved in within hours," the observer noted.

The Syrians are in favor of reorganizing the Lebanese Army if there is a strick balance between Muslims and Christians and if they have an equal share in running it.

"As a military man, I'd fight with the Lebanese Army . . . as long as I was in command," he added.

A couple of hundred officers are sent annually to the United States for training. The US also sells equipment and weaponry to the Lebanese Army such as rifles, tanks, and mortars but no sophisticated weapons like missiles, military observers said.

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