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Lebanon's Army Moves Into Southern Part of Country

Fifteen thousand Lebanese Army troops are deploying in south Lebanon along the border with Israel. It is the first time in more than three decades that Lebanon's military has begun to control its own border.

Not long after dawn, about 100 Lebanese Army trucks rolled across a temporary bridge over the Litani River, heading south toward the border. They bore Lebanese flags fluttering in the wind.

The temporary bridge in Qasmiye was set up to replace one destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. The first trucks to cross it carried armored personnel carriers, followed by loads of bedrolls, plastic chairs and other supplies, and then came the troop carriers, open trucks packed with Lebanese Army soldiers.

Other troops arrived by boat at the port in Tyre. Military officials said full deployment along the border is expected to take about 24 hours. Eventually, there will be 15,000 Lebanese troops deployed in the south, and an equal number of U.N. peacekeepers, who will take much longer to arrive.

For 34 days, the Lebanese Army stood by while Israeli bombs, rockets and artillery battered the south and east of the country, as well as the southern suburbs of the capital. Now the army will have a role to play - not in fighting a war, but in preserving a fragile peace.

The Lebanese Army has not been deployed along the border for more than 30 years. Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in the year 2000, and the Shi'ite-dominated south has been under the de facto control of Hezbollah since then.

In a newly reopened butcher shop on the south edge of Tyre, customer Hatem Besma predicted no problems.

He says, "This is our army - our people, our brothers and our friends." And he says the people of the south will support them.

In order for the deployment to proceed, the Lebanese government had to strike a deal on how to handle Hezbollah's weapons, at least for the time being. The compromise is that the militant group will not disarm, but will keep its arms hidden. The information minister says the army will be the only armed force in south Lebanon, but will not confront Hezbollah or try to disarm it.

Buying a package of ground beef, Hatem Besma said that was fine with him.

He says, "If the army comes and takes up positions down here, then we will not need our weapons."

The Lebanese Army troops and a strengthened U.N. peacekeeping force are supposed to keep the Shi'ite militant group from threatening Israel. Israel has said that one of the goals of its 34-day military offensive was pushing Hezbollah back from the border.

But locals say the militant group - known here as "the resistance" - is an integral part of the Shi'ite community here and cannot really be pushed back. Tyre resident Mohamed Jafr was standing outside the butcher shop, watching U.N. peacekeepers manning a checkpoint and waiting for the army to arrive.

He says, "The resistance is not going anywhere. They will still be here. They will be underground, and will come out when needed."

As the army moved into the south, Hezbollah militants seemed to have melted away. Their weapons were nowhere to be seen, and even their signature two-way radios seemed to have disappeared.

But just 12 hours earlier, in the border village of Aaitaroun on Wednesday evening, local Hezbollah fighters were in plain sight, still bearing their AK-47s and radios. They were standing openly on a rooftop, peering at an Israeli tank on a nearby hilltop through a large pair of old-fashioned Israeli military binoculars, probably left over from a previous war.

The Israelis were undoubtedly peering back at them.

The fighters were unusually relaxed, and explained to several journalists that they were also keeping an eye on three houses down the street, where they said 147 Israeli soldiers were holed up. One of them had a small digital video camera, and he showed the reporters his footage of Israeli troops walking through the fields toward the houses a few hours earlier.

Although many of the Hezbollah militants who have been battling Israeli troops came to the border region from elsewhere, all of these men are from Aaitaroun, which is about three kilometers from the border. They have no intention of leaving their homes, which means that despite Israel's efforts, Hezbollah militants will still be on the border - even if they are no longer wearing uniforms or openly carrying weapons.