Smoldering Tinder in Lebanon

There may be fewer mortars flying at Israel from the north these days, but the drama in Lebanon has surely not yet peaked.

Since Emile Lahoud stepped down as president on Nov. 23 -- leaving no successor in the country sharply divided between pro-West, democratic, anti-Syrian forces and anti-West, theocratic, pro-Syrian forces -- the potential for a power vacuum looms large.

After Monday's eighth delay in a presidential vote by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, parliamentary factions were trying to install army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as president -- a leader with backing on both sides of the tenuous fence.

I sat down with America's envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, on Thursday to discuss the powder keg known as Lebanon.

Q: Is Security Council resolution 1701 working? Is Hezbollah rearming? Are they more powerful in spite of it?

KHALILZAD: "There's no question that Hezbollah is getting arms in violation of the Security Council resolution, and those arms are coming across the border, through Syria, and Iran is the ultimate supporter. ... The U.N. forces, the forces under U.N. command, have done a good job in terms of the south. They're going in where Hezbollah was at the Israeli border and taking control and working with the Lebanese army. ... The cooperation has been good and the Lebanese army has performed well."

Q: In terms of keeping Hezbollah from firing mortars?

KHALILZAD: "Yeah, and to make sure that area does not become a threat to Israel again. But the question of the buildup of Hezbollah forces, the weapons that are coming across ... there are a number of ideas people are talking about, whether to send forces to be deployed also on the Syrian border, should there be more Lebanese capabilities developed to monitor that border more effectively. So this is an issue that will have to be dealt with."

Q: But if a Hezbollah-friendly leader gets in, are all bets off on that?

KHALILZAD: "No, I don't think it would get a Hezbollah-friendly leader as such because the majority in parliament are supporters of the prime minister and of the government. Their margin in the majority has been reduced because of the assassinations that have taken place, as you know, and even now many of these people -- from the (Saad) Hariri block, for example -- they are living in hotels or staying in their offices out of fear of being assassinated. Democracy itself is kind of threatened there. ... But the speaker -- Berri, who is in the coalition now with Hezbollah and some others -- has held parliament back from convening. We think there is a majority that would elect a president and a majority that is pro-government and anti-Hezbollah. But I think Hezbollah is not in a position to get its candidate as president. But it's more intimidation that ... is preventing the convening of the parliament."

Q: Is it the U.S. view that the (Rafik) Hariri assassination was ordered by Syria?

KHALILZAD: "Well, there is still an investigation going on. ... They've made some progress in terms of identifying a list of people of interest that they're focused on. Of course, we would like to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible to see not only who did it, as such, ... (but) the people who orchestrated it in Lebanon and the people who may have ordered it. I think there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.

"One of the factors that could accelerate the conclusion of this investigation successfully is for the tribunal to be established. ... And they need money; we've contributed $5 million to it, several other countries are contributing, we want more contributions. I think once people see there is a serious likelihood of a prosecution and that witnesses can be protected and sentences will be carried out and implemented, then more people will come forward. Otherwise, why take the risk to do so? So I'm cautiously optimistic that we can make significant progress since there is now movement on the tribunal."

Q: With the influence of Arab states at the U.N., and Hezbollah's ultimate nefarious aims, is a realistic, lasting accord even possible for the region?

KHALILZAD: "Well, it's necessary. ... It will take time. It's not the work of a year or two, it's the work of decades, but I think everyone has a common interest now to help them overcome it. By supporting moderates, opposing radicals and extremists, by encouraging reasonable, mutually accepted agreements, by going after terrorists before they come after us, and by dealing with the Iranian problem ... and by encouraging evolutionary transformation of the authoritarian regimes. This is going to be our geopolitical preoccupation for some time to come. And if you say, well, will the region be normal ... in the next three or four years, well, no. But we can make progress.

"Ultimately, the empowerment of moderates is the way to solve this problem and they have to solve it. ... Europeans learned the result of the mistakes they made and we played a role in World War II to help them. I think now this region has got to be the focus of attention from responsible players who can move it along in the direction of becoming a functional region."

Bridget Johnson (www.bridgetjohnson.org) is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.