- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Hezbollah leaders vowed this week to lead the reconstruction of Lebanon but insisted that they will hold on to their guns as they rebuild their shattered homeland — a neat symbol of the checkered and contradictory role that the Islamist movement has played almost since its inception.

The militant Shi’ite group pulled off a string of spectacular attacks on U.S. and Western military and diplomatic sites in the 1980s, and launched bloody attacks on the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. It trains and equips Palestinian militant groups targeting Israel. Hezbollah now stands accused of provoking a monthlong war with Israel that has left much of Lebanon in ruins and hundreds of civilians dead on both sides of the border.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage in 2002 deemed Hezbollah the “A team of terrorists” — ahead of al Qaeda — and the group has long been on the State Department’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. It has close ties to Iran’s Islamic republic and cites the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was virulently anti-U.S., as a prime ideological inspiration.

Hezbollah is even credited with pioneering the modern use of suicide bombers, a tactic adopted by al Qaeda operatives, Sri Lankan rebels and Sunni insurgents in Iraq, among others.

Terror analysts say another side to Hezbollah makes a simple policy of eliminating the group problematic.

Despite its bloody past and its often antagonistic relations with the government in Beirut, Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon’s political system for more than a decade as the acknowledged representative of the country’s Shi’ite Muslims. It holds 14 seats in the Lebanese parliament and two Cabinet posts.

Hezbollah operates hospitals, social-service offices, clinics and schools across Lebanon — many funded by Iran — creating a welfare network widely considered more effective and efficient than that of the central government’s.

The shaky cease-fire imposed by the United Nations has inspired a race between Lebanon’s Western allies and Hezbollah over who can be the “hero of the reconstruction,” said former State Department peacekeeping specialist James Dobbins, now a security analyst with the Rand Corp.

“Right now, I’d say Hezbollah is clearly in the lead,” he said.

Despite the terrorist designation, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has sharply criticized al Qaeda, a radical Sunni Muslim organization, and denounced the September 11 attacks. The State Department reports that the last major Hezbollah-linked terrorist operation that targeted the United States occurred 21 years ago with the hijacking of a TWA flight in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed.

Both Russia and the European Union have declined to place Hezbollah on their lists of acknowledged terrorist organizations.

“Making sense of [Hezbollah] is a challenging and … uncertain science,” says a report on the war in Lebanon by the International Crisis Group, a private think tank based in Brussels. “The movement has joined the government and is ever more present in the political system, yet at the same time, it increasingly perceives that system as tainted from the inside.”

While pushing for more seats in the Cabinet and running more candidates for the National Assembly, Hezbollah “determined to maintain its image as a national movement and is as committed as ever to its revolutionary agenda,” the report says.

Complicating the task of the planned international peacekeeping force proposed for southern Lebanon is the fact that Hezbollah is widely seen in the victor in the recent conflict, having held its own against the powerful Israeli military.

Retired Lt. Col. Mike Bailey, a former top Pentagon adviser on peacekeeping missions, said Hezbollah’s strength on the Lebanese political landscape makes it vital that any long-term strategy for Lebanon accommodate the group’s interests and demands.

“For these Hezbollah fighters, their weapons right now are the source of their authority,” he said. “We have to give them a reason to break with that.”

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