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In Lebanon, some disdain for Hezbollah

In Lebanon, some disdain for Hezbollah

By TODD PITMAN Associated Press Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press

MARWAHEEN, Lebanon — They pushed, shoved, shouted and cursed one another.

Hana Abdallah hugs her daughter Zeina mourning the loss of their relatives, who were killed in the village of Marwaheen during the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah, at a funeral ceremony in the village of Marwaheen, in south Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

In the end, Hezbollah supporters were turned back from an attempt to plaster posters of their leader around Marwaheen, a Sunni Muslim village in southern Lebanon that is mourning the loss of 23 residents from an Israeli air attack during the war.

"Why do you want to put up an image of someone who is killing us?" a man screamed as dozens of villagers brandished fists and thrust open palms at Hezbollah loyalists clutching posters of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the group's bearded and bespectacled chief. "We don't want to see it!"

Though everyone here blames Israel for the 23 deaths, many place equal blame on Hezbollah for bringing its militant Shiite fighters into the region and drawing Israeli fire.

Such displays of anger illustrate the complexities in a nation where Shiite, Sunni, Christian and Druse beliefs exist in a tumultuous mix that boiled over during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Open criticism of Hezbollah is rare in southern Lebanon, a predominantly Shiite area where yellow Hezbollah flags fly over demolished houses and posters of Nasrallah adorn almost every utility pole and shop.

Anger at the Islamic militants is more common in a handful of Christian villages where residents blame Hezbollah _ and its capture of two Israeli soldiers July 12 _ for setting off the destructive 34-day war.

But some Sunni Muslims are furious, too. In Marwaheen, anger has welled up since the July 15 deaths of 23 civilians fleeing artillery and rocket duels between the Israeli army and Hezbollah guerrillas, who took up positions in and around the village.

On the war's third day, Israeli soldiers used loudspeakers to urge civilians to evacuate Marwaheen.

One group of 27, including eight Shiite villagers, sought refuge at a U.N. post in town, but were turned away. Fleeing, their convoy was hit by shells from an Israeli gunboat off Lebanon's coast. Twenty-three died in the barrage and an assault by an Israeli helicopter minutes later.

None of the dead could not be buried until after the fighting stopped Aug. 14.

As the bodies were brought in coffins from a morgue in Tyre on Thursday, Hezbollah supporters wanted the group's flags flown atop the vehicles, partly for journalists to see, said Adel Abdallah, a villager who lost several relatives in the attack.

An argument broke out, and it was decided that only the vehicles carrying coffins of the eight Shiite dead would fly the flags, he said. The other vehicles took another road to Marwaheen so they would not be associated with Hezbollah.

Some of the dead Shiites were buried wrapped in Hezbollah flags, but most of the villagers were lowered in coffins draped in Lebanon's national flag, emblazoned with a cedar tree.

"Nobody wants Hezbollah here," Adel Abdallah said. "They don't want to fight for Lebanon. They fight for themselves, for Iran, for Syria."

Residents talk bitterly of Hezbollah turning their village into a battleground.

When the war broke out, people said, Hezbollah fighters in civilian clothes entered the village and set up launchers to fire rockets south into Israel. The guerrillas moved the launchers around, putting one on top of a house that was subsequently destroyed, they said.

A teenage girl who was in Marwaheen for the first three days of the war said she saw a Hezbollah fighter set up a rocket launcher with a timer on a nearby hillside, then run to the other side of the village near her home, taking refuge between civilian houses.

Streaks of red crossed the sky as the launcher fired a volley into Israel, and minutes later Israel returned fire and huge explosions tore through the launch site, she said.

"We begged them to leave," the girl said, declining to be quoted by name because she feared retribution from Hezbollah. "We told them, 'Get out! We have children here. We don't want anybody to get hurt.' But they ignored us."

Hezbollah fighters have abandoned Marwaheen, but a white minivan incinerated by an airstrike stands beside a mosque. Villagers said it contained several rockets and a launcher that were later removed by guerrillas. What appeared to be a rocket tube covered with a green camouflage tarp lay dumped in a thicket beside an adjacent wall.

A few blocks away, people pointed out a destroyed house that they said was a Hezbollah weapons depot. The roof of the stone building had collapsed onto a pile of rubble, from which peeked rocket-propelled grenades, mortar tubes and a dark green box that apparently once stored ammunition.

"Nobody knew they were using our houses to store weapons. We were surprised to find them" after the war, said Wassim Abdallah, 24. "How could they keep weapons in the middle of all these civilian houses?"