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Experts: Israeli-Hezbollah Fighting Could Continue for Weeks

Fierce fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants has entered its third week, in a conflict that has killed more than 400 Lebanese and at least 50 Israelis. Middle East analysts and Israeli military commanders are predicting the battle could last several more weeks and have an impact on the entire region.

Backed by warplanes, Israeli tanks and troops are continuing efforts to create a buffer zone in southern Lebanon in an effort to stop Hezbollah guerillas from firing rockets into cities and towns in the northern part of the Jewish state.

Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller, who spent 20 years at the State Department working on the Arab-Israeli conflict, says it is not likely Israel will be able to completely disarm Hezbollah.

"There is no doubt that the Israelis set about, whether they will achieve their objectives is arguable in the extreme, set about to restore their sense of deterrence, to punish Hezbollah and to raise the costs of a similar operation in the future and that clearly has made this a much more complicated process," he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Iran and Syria are backing Hezbollah's attacks against Israel as part of a larger campaign to block the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

Middle East analysts say Hezbollah receives about $100 million a year from Tehran, and its Iranian-supplied weaponry is transported through Syria to Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah's incursion into Israel and the capture of two Israeli soldiers July 12 sparked the current crisis.

Their kidnapping came at the same time there is mounting international pressure on Iran to halt uranium enrichment in its nuclear program in return for a package of incentives offered by the U.N. Security Council and Germany.

U.S. officials say Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, something Tehran denies.

Barbara Slavin, the senior diplomatic reporter for the newspaper USA Today, is currently writing a book about U.S. relations with Iran.

Slavin says the latest fighting in Lebanon is likely to lead the Bush administration to put more pressure on the Tehran government to curb its nuclear program.

"Americans are going to see this as another excuse to try to isolate Iran, another excuse to push harder at the Security Council for sanctions, for punishment to insist to the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese that they hold firm on insistence that Iran suspend enrichment as a price for negotiations," she said.

Tehran University Law And Political Science Professor Hadi Semati is a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He says while some conservative analysts in Iran support Hezbollah's decision to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel, more progressive commentators say the organization did not anticipate such a massive military response from the Jewish state.

"This has been a strategic blunder by Hezbollah," said Professor Semati. "Some of the reformist press are arguing about that and writing extensively on that, that Hezbollah made a huge miscalculation and by this operation basically exposed itself, reduced the deterrence value of its assets, ultimately weakening the strategic position of Iran in the region and against the U.S. and against Israel."

Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller says although the main elements of a possible cease-fire are emerging, he expects it will take weeks before the fighting stops.

"I think this will be resolved sometime in the next two to three weeks," he said. "The elements are all there for a deal. A buffer zone, a prisoner swap sometime down the road, and an international force of some kind, undetermined as of yet, to create a measure of buffer between Israel and Hezbollah. It will not produce the disarming of Hezbollah and it will certainly not produce an extension of Lebanese central authority and effectiveness in the south."

Miller says many Lebanese perceive Hezbollah as the last remaining line of defense against Israel.

He says Hezbollah is likely to emerge from the current conflict as a weakened resistance group, but one that remains a critically important armed faction in Lebanon.