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Analysts: US Image Slipped in Lebanon After Israel-Hezbollah War

The 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon ended last month with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire and deployment of U.N. troops. Before the guns were silenced, more than 1,000 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians died. Another casualty, regional analysts say, is the U.S. image in Lebanon, already tarnished by the war in Iraq.

The conflict was triggered on July 12, when Hezbollah guerillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others during a cross-border raid. Israel's response was fast and hard. Lebanon's infrastructure was destroyed as Israel went after Hezbollah targets and hit roads and bridges in what it said was a bid to stop arms from Iran and Syria reaching the militants, and to keep Hezbollah rockets from reaching Israel.

Although the United States was not involved in the war, its close alliance with Israel and its reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire left many people in Lebanon and the region feeling that Washington tacitly approved Israel's military campaign.

Karim Makdisi is a professor of international relations at the American University in Beirut.

"There is no question that this war was seen very, very clearly, in the way that no other war has been seen, really, as a joint Israeli-American war against Lebanon," he said.

He adds that when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Beirut during the conflict, and did not call for an immediate ceasefire, that also hurt America's standing in the region.

"That played very badly among people here, because people were dying, and there was a feeling of why is America letting us down?" he said.

Rice explained the United States did not want to see a return to the "status quo ante," but wanted a "sustainable" ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Alberto Fernandez, a spokesman in the U.S. State Department's Near East bureau, says the U.S. was working hard to end the war.

"This is certainly not a war that we sought, that we encouraged," Mr. Fernandez noted. "It is a war that was forced upon the Lebanese people, the Lebanese government and the region. We worked very hard to find a solution. The Secretary of State [Condoleezza Rice] tried very hard; she went to the region, she co-hosted the Rome Conference along with the Italians. I find it disingenuous that Hezbollah starts a war, and the United States is blamed for not stopping it soon enough. Well, maybe Hezbollah should never have started the war in the first place."

Jawad Boulos is a Christian member of the Lebanese parliament. He says, before the conflict, many Lebanese looked up to the United States as the defender of freedom and the protector of human rights. But, he says, Washington's decision to deliver an existing order of sophisticated bombs to Israel during the war tarnished that image.

"At a time when it was patently obvious that these bombs were going to be used against Lebanese, and at a time when the Israeli army was using these very dangerous weapons, such as cluster bombs, and smart bombs, and bunker-busting bombs that were being used against civilian areas. I think this was not productive," he explained.

But Michael Young, the opinion editor of Lebanon's English-language Daily Star newspaper, says America's declining popularity in the region is not its most serious problem.

"This is a region where very few political leaders are popular," said Mr. Young. "So, I do not think popularity is the real issue. The fact is, yes, America has lost popularity in the last few years. But, I think, its real problem is its credibility, or its effectiveness. In other words, when many people in the region look at what is happening in Iraq, what they see is that America has been essentially incompetent."

State Department spokesman Fernandez says the administration is concerned with its image in the Middle East. He says the reality in the region is difficult, because there is a lot of suffering and violence, and people's anger is understandable.

"We have to explain our policy well, and we have do everything we can to help the people of Lebanon and Iraq, but especially the people of Lebanon, in this recent, unnecessary and needless war that Hezbollah launched," added Mr. Fernandez.

He says the United States is looking at both short-term and long-term ways to strengthen Lebanon and its democratically elected government. He says Washington's recent $230 million pledge toward Lebanon's reconstruction is just the beginning.