Monday, July 31, 2006

Hezbollah fighters were well-prepared for Israeli military actions in southern Lebanon and remain well-armed after three weeks of Israeli attacks on its forces, U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been closely monitoring Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite organization, to see how it stands up to the conflict that began after the group attacked Israeli soldiers earlier this month.

The view is generally that Hezbollah remains intact.

“So far, they have been able to hold the organization together,” one official said. “They are getting a lot of outside support, primarily from the Iranians.”

Hezbollah is a complex organization with a political wing, a charity element, a “conventional” military made up of several thousand fighters and a terrorist arm with several hundred Islamic extremists who have conducted bombing attacks in Israel and in other countries.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is thought to be in Beirut and continues to elude Israeli air and ground attacks, said officials who provided some details of the latest reports on the fighting on the condition of anonymity.

Sheik Nasrallah is still the top commander of its forces and remains a major target of Israeli forces, the officials said.

The officials said the Hezbollah leader “moves around a lot” but would not deny that Sheik Nasrallah may be working from the basement of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, as some news reports have suggested. But if that were confirmed, he said, diplomatic protection would not necessarily deter a strike, despite Israel’s “great reluctance” to target the embassy.

“If the state of Israel figures out where he is, you can expect to see a plume of smoke going up from that location,” said one official. “He knows that as well and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in one location for long.”

The official said targeting Sheik Nasrallah is a priority because “the people calling shots militarily are in Hezbollah, not the Iranian” Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Iranian fighters have been identified as assisting Hezbollah, he said.

A second official said Israel would step up its attacks if Hezbollah follows through on a threat made on Friday by Sheik Nasrallah, who said the group planned to move into a second phase of its rocket attacks by extending the reach of the strikes to cities throughout Israel.

Hezbollah is thought to have missiles known as Zelzal-2s, which were obtained from Iran and can hit targets as far as 120 miles away, a range that includes central Israel.

The group was thought to have 11,500 to 13,000 rockets at the start of the conflict. The systems are hidden and have proven difficult for Israel to knock out with air strikes.

Since the fighting began, Hezbollah has not used even a third of the military hardware in its arsenal, including long-range artillery rockets, the officials said. The U.S. assessment conflicts with public claims by Israeli military spokesmen who say Hezbollah’s arsenal of rocket launchers has been significantly degraded by Israeli strikes.

Since the conflict started, Hezbollah military forces have waged fierce battles with Israeli troops and their operations have demonstrated that the group had prepared for an Israeli military incursion into southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah fighters “were ready for people coming across the border and their goal is to do two things,” the first official said. “One is to inflict as much damage as possible on the Israelis. And the second is to die trying.”

For at least five years, Iran has been supplying Hezbollah with arms and other goods estimated to be worth as much as $200 million a year, the officials said.

A defense source told The Washington Times last week that the Israeli army was somewhat surprised by Hezbollah’s capabilities, including continued rocket attacks despite Israeli aerial bombing.

The U.S. officials, however, said the Israelis were ready and understood before going into Lebanon that “there would be tough sledding.”

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