For many years, Lebanon has scarcely been able to claim that it is an independent nation with a functional government. Instead, it has looked more like a jigsaw puzzle of fiefdoms controlled by private armies, militias, gangs and terrorist groups - all armed to the teeth and segregated along sectarian lines.

Many of the groups held port facilities, key cities, strategic crossings and mountain strongholds. Some levied their own taxes and were richer than the almost-powerless state. Part of the county has been occupied by Israel and part by Syria. Constant fighting among the private militias has killed thousands of people, devastated the capital of Beirut and left residents exhausted from years of battles and a siege atmosphere.But some of that may be changing. Government troops ended militia control in one-third of Lebanon this past week, taking control of mountain strongholds from two of the biggest private armies. There was no resistance to army tanks and troops.

Losing their bastions north of Beirut were Christian militias, while Druse Muslim strongholds southeast of the capital also were occupied. Weary residents rejoiced at the prospect of peace.

Any resistance to a Syrian-backed peace plan was crushed last year when rebel Gen. Michel Aoun's Christian militia forces were defeated by Lebanese and Syrian troops. Most other militias have resentfully complied with a demand to lay down their heavy weapons.

However, Palestinian guerrillas and various fanatical, Iranian-backed terrorist groups, like the ones holding Western hostages, have not responded so far. They say they must stay armed to fight against Israel.

For the sake of the hostages, let's hope the decline of armed factions will result in the release of prisoners and put an end to such kidnapping. At the very least, the existence of a government able to enforce its will should make life more difficult for the hostage-takers.

While some measure of peace and order is being restored to Lebanon, the country appears to have become a vassal state of Syria, which has 40,000 troops holding various regions. The danger is that the people of Lebanon may be exchanging war and chaos for the kind of order and obedience imposed by a ruthless oppressor.

Under the circumstances, a quieter Lebanon will not offer greater peace of mind to neighboring Israel.