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Hezbollah's formidable weapons arsenal under fresh scrutiny

Lebanon's new government is slated to review the militant Shiite party's weapons as part of a national defense strategy once it takes office. The prisoner swap with Israel has given Hezbollah new leverage.

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The successful conclusion of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah has won the militant Lebanese Shiite party new leverage against its domestic opponents, even as fresh challenges over the fate of its formidable weapons arsenal loom.

With the Hezbollah-led opposition having recently secured a one-third, veto-wielding share of a new coalition government, the Shiite party is in its strongest domestic position since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. His death presaged the collapse of what was then a pro-Syrian political order in favor of a new Western-backed regime.

"Hezbollah is in a much stronger position than it was after the Hariri assassination," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and specialist on Hezbollah. "The political victory [gaining veto power in the new government] and the prisoner exchange has consolidated its position. But the challenges it faces remain the same and the struggle has not ended."

The swap was touted as a moment of national unity in which even Hezbollah's political opponents gritted their teeth to praise the party for securing the release of the five detainees. But once the acclaim is over and the new government takes office, Lebanon's top political leaders are scheduled to discuss the future of Hezbollah's weapons as part of a national defense strategy.

Supporters of the Western-backed March 14 parliamentary block, which forms the backbone of the new government, seek to disarm the Iran-backed Hezbollah or at least place restraints on the party's ability to use its weapons. Although Hezbollah says its weapons are solely for the defense of Lebanon, its critics fear that they are intended to benefit Tehran's regional ambitions at the expense of Lebanon's stability.


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