BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers and policemen deployed into Hezbollah strongholds south of Beirut on Monday, after officials said they had reached a deal with the Shiite militant group to send troops into neighborhoods where they long had only a symbolic presence.
The agreement follows a backlash against Hezbollah's tightened security measures in the area known as Dahiyeh after an Aug. 15 car bomb attack that killed 27 people.
By the afternoon, troops in armored personnel carriers and other vehicles had set up checkpoints and were searching cars and asking people for identity cards.
The deployment is likely to be welcomed by Lebanese who feel that Hezbollah's strength has eroded the government's authority. Local businessmen and Hezbollah's Western-backed political rivals protested the group's checkpoints in Dahiyeh, while Saudi Arabia filed a complaint after Hezbollah members last month stopped a diplomatic car.
"We are strengthening the state's authority in Dahiyeh," Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters.
"Thank God, the guardians of the state are here," said Wijdan Seifeddine, 65, as she walked with her grandsons Ali, 6, and Adam, 3, in a street showing them the troops. "I'd always wanted to see the army here before I die."
But others in the area feared that the army would be less committed than the Shiite militant group to stopping a repetition of the Aug. 15 bombing, presumed to be a reprisal by Syrian rebels or their Lebanese sympathizers for Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian civil war.
Mohammed Hammoud, 20, who works at a mall, said the troops will not be able to protect Dahiyeh the way Hezbollah did.
"The army allows anyone to go in here but Hezbollah takes stricter measures. They search better," said Hammoud, who wore a pendant in the shape of a double-bladed sword, a symbol revered by Shiites.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech later Monday in which he urged Dahiyeh residents to be "extremely cooperative and positive" toward troops.
He added that Hezbollah's investigation into the Aug. 15 bombing revealed it was carried out by an extremist group that worked from inside Syria. He did not elaborate.
About 800 soldiers and policemen took part in the operation, said Lebanese security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In the Mar Michael district, uniformed Hezbollah members dismantled their checkpoint when a group of soldiers approached them. Within minutes, the troops put down barriers and set up their own checkpoint in the same place.
Dahiyeh, home to Hezbollah's leaders, has been under the control of the militants since the late 1980s.
According to the agreement that ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep its weapons because it was fighting Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon. But although Israel withdrew in 2000, Hezbollah retained its arms, saying they were needed to defend the country against any future Israeli attack.
Hezbollah today has an arsenal that is by far larger than that of the national army. Lebanese are deeply divided over Hezbollah's weapons, and leaders of the Western-backed March 14 coalition have been calling on the group to disarm for years.