- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

BEIRUT — The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah has a warning for the United States:

Any attempt to destroy the militant group could mean American interests being attacked around the world.

But Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also hinted that Hezbollah’s military wing, which is poised along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, could be dismantled in the event of a comprehensive Middle East peace.

In an interview in his heavily protected, sealed-off compound in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Sheik Nasrallah claimed the Bush administration had no evidence linking Hezbollah to acts of anti-American terrorism. He accused President Bush of exploiting the attacks of September 11 to pursue a military agenda that benefits U.S. economic and strategic interests.

The United States ranks the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah high on its list of terrorist groups, perceiving the Lebanese radicals as genuine threats to U.S. interests. But from where Sheik Nasrallah sits, it is the Bush administration that is the real terrorist organization.

“We believe that the American administration has always exercised terrorist and aggressive policies and backed terrorist groups and regimes,” Sheik Nasrallah said.

He cited the CIA’s training of Osama bin Laden and his mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its past support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

“The American administration is a sponsor of terrorism, so ethically and legally it is not qualified to categorize terrorism,” he said.

“We believe the Bush administration is being dishonest in claiming to be against terrorism,” Sheik Nasrallah said. “It has been exploiting the events of September 11 to achieve its long-term strategies throughout the world.”

Last year, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Hezbollah as the “A-team of terrorists” and vowed to take them down “one by one.”

The United States accuses Hezbollah of responsibility for numerous high-profile anti-American attacks such as the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, in which more than 300 people were killed, and the kidnappings of Westerners in war-torn Lebanon in the late 1980s.

One of the most wanted figures in the war on terrorism is Imad Mughnieh, a Lebanese who U.S. officials believe heads Hezbollah’s military wing. Mughnieh is said to have been the organizer of the 1980s suicide bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon as well as two suicide bombings in Argentina against Israeli and Jewish targets in 1992 and 1994.

The mysterious and security-conscious Mughnieh is rumored to have had plastic surgery twice to alter his appearance.

“The American accusations against Mughnieh are mere accusations,” Sheik Nasrallah said. “Can they provide evidence to condemn Imad Mughnieh? They launch accusations as if they are given facts.

“Haj Imad Mughnieh is among the best freedom fighters in the Lebanese arena,” he said, using the honorific for those who have made the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. But Sheik Nasrallah refused to reveal whether Mughnieh had a role in Hezbollah.

The Reagan administration’s Lebanon policy in the early 1980s was shattered by the devastating suicide attacks against American targets. Some officials who served in the Reagan administration have returned to office under Mr. Bush — including Mr. Armitage, who was an assistant defense secretary in the 1980s. Twenty years later, these officials see Hezbollah as a legitimate target in the war on terrorism.

Since the Iraq war, the Bush administration has applied steady diplomatic pressure on Syria to dismantle Hezbollah’s military wing. Syria, which dominates the political process in neighboring Lebanon, grants Hezbollah a certain freedom of action in southern Lebanon, where the group’s fighters are marshaled along the border with Israel.

It remains unclear to what extent Washington intends to pursue Hezbollah, as not all officials are convinced the group poses a threat to U.S. interests.

Sheik Nasrallah insisted that Hezbollah does not possess a “global reach,” saying the group was a Lebanese-based resistance movement against Israel.

“To compare Hezbollah to al Qaeda is wrong,” he said. “We are a Lebanese party that fought occupation forces on Lebanese territory. We have not carried out operations anywhere in the world.” He said that Hezbollah has had ample justification during 20 years of “very difficult existence” to perpetrate worldwide attacks, but has not done so.

But Sheik Nasrallah delivered a clear warning that Hezbollah would fight back if it felt its survival was in jeopardy.

“In such a case, Hezbollah has a right to defend its existence, its people and its country through any means and at any time and in any place,” he said.

A former FBI counterterrorism specialist said Hezbollah’s “global reach” is not a deterrent to the United States, but it does “add layers to the decision-making process” in taking action against the organization.

Hezbollah’s potential global reach is factored similarly into any planning for action against Syria and Iran, both sponsors of the group. “Should we take action against Iran, not necessarily military action, it’s very likely that the response will come from Hezbollah elsewhere” around the world, the source said. “If we were to attack, part of the preparatory process would be to crack down on [Hezbollah] elements abroad.”

Yet many analysts believe Hezbollah has no interest in targeting the United States and remains focused instead on the struggle against Israel. They say Hezbollah’s potential for disrupting the faltering peace process and its lingering threat toward Israel are the real reasons behind Washington’s hostility.

“It’s not Hezbollah that is doing the terrorism out of Lebanon,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA operative who worked in Lebanon in the mid-1980s and investigated the U.S. Embassy bombing. “They didn’t do the U.S. Embassy in 1983 nor the Marines. It was the Iranians. It’s a political issue here [in Washington] because the Israelis want the Americans to go after Hezbollah.”

Hezbollah’s battle-hardened guerrilla fighters fought a 20-year war of resistance against Israeli troops, forcing Israel to withdraw unilaterally from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon three years ago.

Since then, Hezbollah has deployed in strength along the frontier, manning observation posts beside the border fence, often just yards from Israeli outposts, and stockpiling weapons and ammunition.

The United States is pressuring Syria and Lebanon to have Hezbollah’s forces removed from the border and replaced by Lebanese army troops. Many analysts believe that dismantling Hezbollah’s military wing is a red line for Syria, one the regime in Damascus cannot cross if it is to maintain its credibility in the Arab world.

Although Hezbollah traditionally refuses to reveal its plans, Sheik Nasrallah suggested that its military wing does not have to remain a permanent fixture along the border with Israel.

“Of course, Lebanon and Syria are ready to discuss the resistance in south Lebanon within the framework of a comprehensive settlement that tackles the issues of the [Israeli-occupied] land, [Lebanese] detainees and Palestinian refugees and the future of the region,” he said. “If not within this framework, I don’t think there’s anyone in Lebanon or Syria ready to discuss” disarming Hezbollah.

Sheik Nasrallah is considered one of the most popular leaders in the Arab world. His speeches garner front-page headlines and are scrutinized by analysts. His enemies fear and respect him in equal measure. He led the campaign to drive Israel out of Lebanon, turning Hezbollah into one of the most redoubtable guerrilla forces in the world.

“He’s the most well-known, popular and respected Shi’ite Muslim figure in the Arab world,” says Farid Khazen, professor at the American University of Beirut.

“He has shown a great deal of skill and leadership and is beyond compare with any other Islamist leader in the region.”

Sheik Nasrallah wears a black turban, which denotes him as a sayyed, or direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Chubby and soft-spoken, Sheikh Nasrallah at first glance appears an unlikely leader of a militant group.

He grew up in Beirut. Religiously devout from a young age, he traveled at age 15 to study Islam in Najaf, Iraq, the city holy to Shi’ite Muslims, with the help of Abbas Mussawi, who would become leader of Hezbollah. Sheik Nasrallah fled Iraq in 1978 to escape arrest by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Back in Lebanon, he joined Amal, then the mainstream group representing the interests of the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim community.

After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, Sheik Nasrallah, along with other religious radicals, split from Amal and helped establish Hezbollah. Between 1982 and 1985, Hezbollah was an underground organization known to few people. In 1985, Israel withdrew its forces to a border strip in southern Lebanon, which it would occupy for the next 15 years. That same year, Hezbollah announced its existence and published a manifesto explaining its ideology and goals.

In 1992, Sheik Nasrallah was elected secretary-general of Hezbollah after Mr. Mussawi was killed in an Israeli missile strike.

Hezbollah transformed itself in the early 1990s into a disciplined guerrilla force skilled in the use of antitank missiles, explosives, artillery, field reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and communications.

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