Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The terrorist groups Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah have opened offices in Iraq and are recruiting young men in the cities of Basra and Nasariyah, says the executive director of the American Islamic Congress.

“They have been recruiting young people. They pay them a little money and teach them their ideology,” said Zainab al-Suwaij, who has been in Iraq for 10 months and travels in the country extensively under a U.S. Agency for International Development education contract.

“I saw the buildings, with signs and the same flag as that of the Lebanese-backed Hezbollah hanging outside the building,” Mrs. al-Suwaij said of the Hamas office in Basra and the Hezbollah office in Nasariyah.

Mrs. al-Suwaij, who was in Washington this month to speak about the role of women in Iraq, said the latter group should not be confused with a legitimate charitable group in Iraq that also uses the name Hezbollah, which means “party of God.”

A State Department official in Washington was unable to confirm whether the two radical groups were active in Iraq, but said, “I wouldn’t be surprised by such a development at all.”

But Iraqi Governing Council member Mouwafak al-Rabii insisted in a telephone interview from Baghdad that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah was there.

“This is rubbish, nonsense,” he said. “There is no business in this country for them.”

British Squadron Leader Jon Arnold, contacted in Basra about the Hamas presence, said British forces “have no knowledge of this report whatsoever.”

Other experts said they were skeptical that Hamas and Hezbollah would operate so blatantly in Iraq, but acknowledged that the groups probably were active.

“There is nothing overt, but there is a whole lot covert,” said Matthew Levitt, senior fellow of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“In a heavily dominated Shi’ite area, we would be foolish to expect anything but support for Hezbollah,” he said.

But, he cautioned: “In that corner of the world, those [flags] are symbols of pride, especially for those who are resistance-minded. That’s something other than terrorism.”

Both Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

Israel’s assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin on March 22 has exacerbated anti-American sentiment in Iraq.

“The killing of Yassin in Gaza is going to crank up all the crazies,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a letter released after his death, Sheik Yassin defended violent attacks on Israel and called for Arabs to support insurgents fighting to oust the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq, the Associated Press reported last week.

The letter by the sheik was posted on the Hamas Web site.

Mrs. al-Suwaij said rampant unemployment and low education levels were contributing to a general dissatisfaction among Iraqi youths, propelling them to join the groups.

Mr. Levitt said Hezbollah is most likely engaging in charitable activities that later could serve as a cover for more menacing activities, much as it did in Beirut.

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