BEIRUT — During a funeral procession for the victims of a recent car bomb in Beirut's Shia Muslim slums, a defiant, rhythmic chant rose from the multitude of mourners.
"Khomeini is our chief," the crowd roared, praising Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "and Hezbollah is our army."
Virtually unknown two years ago, the war cry of Hezbollah--a term taken from the Koran that means "Party of God"--has become a fixture of everyday life in Lebanon.
For a time, Hezbollah was ridiculed as too radical to find easy acceptance in Lebanon's Shia community, which is more cosmopolitan than its counterpart in Iran. Nevertheless, the popularity of the fundamentalist organization has ballooned in recent weeks, seemingly in direct proportion to the number of Israeli raids against Shia villages in southern Lebanon.
"The more they kill us, the more we grow," said Abu Haidar, the code name of a dapper young man who is Hezbollah's director of press relations. "Imagine a tree," he said. "Every time you cut it, it grows another branch. That's us."
Perhaps as a result, the group's symbol, an arm rising from the word Hezbollah with a gun clutched in its fist, has recently been splattered in blood-red paint across entire neighborhoods in Beirut's poorer districts.
Hezbollah has made it clear that--beyond expelling the Israelis from southern Lebanon--its long-term goal is to scrap Lebanon's traditional practice of sharing power between Muslims and Christians in favor of an Islamic state whose allegiance is to Iran.
American authorities have accused Hezbollah of being responsible for suicide bomb attacks on two U.S. Embassy buildings and the devastating explosion at the U.S. Marine barracks here in 1983 that killed 241 American servicemen. Hezbollah is also believed to be one of many radical groups that identify themselves as Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) in claiming responsibility for a number of terrorist incidents in the Mideast.
While denying responsibility for attacks on the U.S. facilities, Hezbollah's guiding lights do not exactly condemn them, either. As in Iran, the followers of Hezbollah regard the United States as the embodiment of evil because of its support for Israel.
"America is the country which supports terrorist attacks," said Sheik Ibrahim Amin, a firebrand Shia cleric from the town of Baalbek. He is just 33 years old but is widely regarded as one of Hezbollah's top leaders.
"We are ready to work against America and to kill Americans," Amin said in an interview, his right hand working a set of jade worry beads. "Every country in the world has the right to fight against American terrorism, and we support them."
If anyone doubted the strength of Hezbollah, the doubt was dispelled in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from the seaport of Sidon on Feb. 16. Two days after the withdrawal, several thousand Hezbollah supporters traveled by motorcade from Beirut to Sidon, put on a demonstration to mark the "liberation" of the city and denounced President Amin Gemayel, a Christian, as the "Shah of Lebanon."
The demonstration shocked Sidon, which is primarily Sunni Muslim, and upset Syria, which had been working to avoid communal tension after the Israeli pullout.
Amal Losing Influence
The growth of Hezbollah has taken place largely at the expense of Amal, the mainstream Shia militia organization. Amal's leader, Nabih Berri, is a lawyer who joined a coalition government with Lebanon's Christians and even supported talks with Israel in the border town of Naqoura, talks that were designed to coordinate moves of the Lebanese army with Israeli forces during the latter's withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Cooperation with Lebanon's Christian leaders or with Israel is anathema to Hezbollah, which has advocated placing the Christians on trial and destroying Israel in a jihad, or holy war.
The mere mention of Khomeini's name seems to transport followers of Hezbollah into a sort of religious rhapsody. Indeed, Hezbollah espouses an idea, initiated in Iran, that is known as "the rule of the theologian." The theologian, even in Lebanon's case, is Iran's Khomeini.
Although Hezbollah has emerged from the shadows recently, issuing a 48-page manifesto and having press conferences for the first time, little is known about its structure. Its leaders repeatedly make the point that Hezbollah eschews the trappings of organizations--membership cards, for example.
Hezbollah sprang up in partnership with a group called Islamic Amal, a militia that broke away from mainstream Amal and had its headquarters in Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley.
According to Hezbollah's manifesto, its Muslim fundamentalist members are "the children of the nation whose vanguard in Iran was bestowed with victory." This vanguard, it said, is laying the foundation for a "pan-Islamic state" under Khomeini's guidance.
Constantly On the Move