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Swoop on 'CIA spies' sets back Hezbollah

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 27 (UPI) -- Hezbollah's admission that it has seized three spies in its ranks, two supposedly recruited by the CIA, is a serious blow to the Iranian-backed movement's prestige soon after it took control of Lebanon's government for the first time.

The Shiite movement is also concerned about the increasingly bloody struggle of one of its main backers, the Syrian government in Damascus dominated by the minority Alawites, to crush a stubborn, three-month-old nationwide uprising.

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Hezbollah should be riding high after finally achieving the kind of political power, albeit backed by the threat of force, for which Lebanon's long-downtrodden Shiites have striven for three decades.

But the Party of God has been beset by internal rivalries in recent years, particularly since its 2006 war with Israel, one that Hezbollah's Secretary-General and chief strategist Hassan Nasrallah had admitted it stumbled into by kidnapping Israeli soldiers on Lebanon's southern border.

It is widely understood that triggering that conflict irked Tehran, which intervened to reorganize Hezbollah to its own pattern.

That emphasized the differences between those in the Party of God who align with Syria and those who are swayed by Tehran.

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The assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's iconic military leader, on Feb, 12, 2008, was a major blow.

It did much to dispel the aura of Hezbollah's indestructibility with which the party had cloaked itself since it drove the Israeli occupiers out of south Lebanon in May 2000, the first Arab group to retake conquered land.

That image was sharpened when Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a standstill in their 34-day 2006 war and subjected Israeli towns to a constant rocket bombardment the military could not stop.

Nasrallah's admission Friday that three spies within the party had been captured was guarded and clearly designed to minimize their significance. He insisted all were low-ranking members without access to sensitive information.

However, his attempt to dismiss the affair as a minor irritation was seen in some quarters in Lebanon as masking internal problems within the movement, and that the infiltration may be more serious than he's made out.

Over the past two years, Lebanese security authorities, with considerable help from Hezbollah, have rounded up more than 100 suspected agents of Israel's intelligence services.

By any standards, an operation of that scale is highly unusual, if not unprecedented and it was probably not possible without Hezbollah's help.

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Suspects included a couple of generals, a cluster of colonels, businessmen and politicians. Some have already been convicted and sentenced to death.

But, even though the Israelis' main purpose was to gather intelligence on Hezbollah, its command structure, safe houses, arms depots and missile launching sites, no Hezbollah activist was listed among those rounded up.

Nasrallah's insistence that none of the trio more recently unmasked was working for Israel and that all were really only bit players suggests there's a lot he's not saying.

Mughniyeh's murder was blamed on Israel, which has a history of eliminating key enemies. But that killing also constituted a massive security failure on the part of Hezbollah, and Mughniyeh's Syrian hosts.

Hezbollah's concern about the turmoil in Syria is well founded. The country is vital for Hezbollah's military and political power.

It's the party's main arms conduit from Tehran. There are reports it's moved its missiles from storage in Syria into Lebanon for safekeeping.

Any regime change in Damascus, most likely meaning a government dominated by rival Sunnis, would leave Hezbollah dangerously isolated.

Hezbollah also faces another potentially damaging event as it grapples with Lebanon's Saudi-backed Sunnis who lost political power three months ago.

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That's the expected indictment of some of its top officials by a U.N.-mandated special tribunal in The Hague investigating the assassination of Lebanon's top statesman, Rafik Hariri, a Sunni, in Beirut Feb. 15, 2005.

Hezbollah has repeatedly warned it will never accept the indictment of any of its people and will not surrender anyone.

This has raised fears of renewed sectarian conflict in Lebanon. But the traditional battle lines are much more confused these days.

The Sunnis, once the dominant Muslim sect, are split between supporting Hezbollah and Syria on one hand and a Hariri-led faction backed by the West and Saudi Arabia on the other.

The Maronite Catholics, the main Christian sect, are also divided.

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