Intelligence reports indicate the leader of Hezbollah is hiding in a foreign mission in Beirut, possibly the Iranian Embassy, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
Israeli military and intelligence forces are continuing to hunt for Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, who fled his headquarters in Beirut shortly before Israeli jets bombed the building last week.
“We think he is in an embassy,” said one U.S. official with access to the intelligence reports, while Israeli intelligence speculates Sheik Nasrallah is hiding in the Iranian Embassy.
If confirmed, the reports could lead to an Israeli air strike on the embassy, possibly leading to a widening of the conflict, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Foreign embassies are sovereign territory and an attack on an embassy could be considered an act of war.
But other reports from the region indicate Sheik Nasrallah may be in Damascus. A Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Seyassah, reported from the Syrian capital yesterday that Sheik Nasrallah was seen moving through the city with Syrian guards in an intelligence agency car, Associated Press reported. He was dressed in civilian clothes, not his normal clerical robe.
The newspaper quoted Syrian government sources as saying Iranian national security council official Ali Larijani was in Damascus and was to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Sheik Nasrallah.
Hezbollah officials in Beirut said they did not know whether Sheik Nasrallah had gone to Damascus.
Asked about the reports of Sheik Nasrallah in Syria, a U.S. official said they are unconfirmed, but noted that because of the proximity, it is easy to travel between Lebanon and Damascus.
U.S. officials confirmed the existence of intelligence reports about Sheik Nasrallah hiding in a Beirut embassy after Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper reported Wednesday that the Hezbollah leader was thought to be in the Iranian Embassy. The newspaper, quoting intelligence officials, said Sheik Nasrallah has set up an operations center in an embassy basement that is coordinating Hezbollah attacks.
However, the U.S. officials said the intelligence reports have not confirmed Sheik Nasrallah’s precise location.
Iran’s embassy in Beirut is located in the Shi’ite stronghold known as the Bir Hasan section, in the western part of the city.
The embassy also is a major base for Iranian intelligence and is used by large numbers of Ministry of Intelligence and Security agents, as well as by senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s shock troops that are linked to international terrorist activities.
President Bush said yesterday that Iran is linked to the problems in Lebanon. “Hezbollah attacked Israel. I know Hezbollah is connected to Iran,” Mr. Bush told reporters after meeting Romanian President Traian Basescu. “Now is the time for the world to confront this danger.” Mr. Bush said the root cause of the violence is “terrorist groups trying to stop the advance of democracies.”
Israel has dispatched both military special operations units and intelligence personnel in an effort to kill the Hezbollah leader, who has continued to issue statements since the two-week-old war began, said the U.S. officials. In a Wednesday television broadcast, Sheik Nasrallah threatened more attacks throughout Israel.
On July 14, Israeli jets bombed the Hezbollah headquarters, also located in Bir Hasan, starting a campaign of “decapitation” strikes designed to eliminate the group’s leaders, weaken the organization and limit its military effectiveness.
Iran’s government has called for a cease-fire.
A Middle East diplomat confirmed that Israel is seeking out Sheik Nasrallah and that the Iranian Embassy appears mostly evacuated. However, the diplomat stated: “Wherever he is, he is a legitimate target,” similar to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. “He’s responsible for organizing attacks and killing Israelis,” the diplomat said.
In Tehran, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that the embassy in Beirut was sheltering Sheik Nasrallah and dismissed reports of his presence there as Israeli government “disinformation.”
Hezbollah forces in the past were known for specializing in coordinated suicide bombings. The group, however, has shown a different military effectiveness in the recent fighting with Israel through its coordinated attacks with small bands of guerrillas.
The Shi’ite terrorist group was behind the 1983 suicide truck bombings that killed 241 U.S. troops and 58 French paratroopers who were deployed to Lebanon as peacekeepers.