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WAR WITH IRAQ / TERRORISM

Hezbollah Vows Anew to Target Americans

April 17, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Hezbollah, a militant Islamic organization backed by Iran and Syria, has issued a new call to arms against Americans in the Middle East, touching off fears of terrorist attacks and debate within the Bush administration over whether to move more aggressively against the group and its key sponsors.

The military wing of Hezbollah, long considered by the U.S. to be among the world's most dangerous terrorist groups, has focused largely on Israel because of its past occupation of Hezbollah's homeland in Lebanon and other contested territory. But the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has triggered a spate of anti-American rhetoric from the Shiite organization and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

"The people of the region will receive [America] with rifles, blood, arms, martyrdom and martyrdom operations," Nasrallah said in a speech delivered a week before the war began. His remarks were broadcast on Al Manar, the group's Beirut-based satellite television station.

"In the past, when the Marines were in Beirut, we screamed, 'Death to America!' " Nasrallah said. "Today, when the region is being filled with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, 'Death to America!' was, is and will stay our slogan."

Hezbollah's renewed focus on America has sharpened the long-standing debate among U.S. officials over whether the United States can, and should, go after the group. Some believe that a showdown has been overdue since 1983, when the group blew up the U.S. Embassy and a Marine barracks in Beirut. The attacks killed more than 300 people.

But any offensive would be fraught with political, diplomatic and economic risks for the United States, some officials say. Hezbollah's close ties with Iran and Syria -- the major power broker in Lebanon -- underscore the complexities of pressing the war on terrorism when it involves groups backed by governments, they note.

Few Options on Iran

Though U.S. counter-terrorism officials for decades have regarded Iran in particular as a key player in international terrorism, successive administrations have concluded that they had few viable options in dealing with Tehran, said Roger Cressey, a senior counter-terrorism official with the National Security Council in the Clinton and Bush administrations who recently left the White House.

Testifying before the House last month, J. Cofer Black, the State Department's top counter-terrorism official, said the Bush administration "has looked upon Iran as a serious threat to the United States, as one of, if not the, primary terrorist threat with capabilities to match."

Hezbollah has received as much as $100 million annually in recent years from Tehran, as well as weapons, U.S. officials say.

In addition, the Damascus government has given Hezbollah weapons and political and logistical support, the officials say. The group's ties to Iran and Syria prompted the United States to put both nations on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

With thousands of well-trained, well-armed and highly disciplined soldiers, and thousands of missiles and other armaments, Hezbollah could pose a more potent threat than even Al Qaeda, several top U.S. officials have warned.

"I'll tell you that Hezbollah, as an organization with capability and worldwide presence, is its equal, if not a far more capable, organization," CIA Director George J. Tenet testified to Congress this year. "I actually think they're a notch above in many respects" in part because of the group's ties with Iran, he said.

Even before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hezbollah's TV station, with an estimated audience of 10 million, began airing music videos that call for suicide attacks against American forces in Iraq -- "the army of evil, an invading, aggressive, occupying army."

Several U.S. officials said a continued U.S. presence in Iraq could provoke a violent reaction from Hezbollah.

"We take it seriously, and we're looking at them. They've been lethal before and continue to be," said one senior administration official.

"There are concerns," a second American official said of the shift in Hezbollah's focus. "Whether it is the natural outgrowth of the U.S.-British invasion of Arab land or something more fundamental and significant, we don't know," he added.

One U.S. official described Hezbollah's threats as a tactical ploy, saying intelligence analysts believe that Israel is still the organization's primary focus.

In Nasrallah's speech before 150,000 supporters in a Beirut suburb, the Hezbollah leader said the United States, as well as Muslim nations that support it, will face dire consequences as a result of the U.S. presence in Iraq. "America has made no secret of its desire to change the structure of the entire area, and these [Arab] regimes will not be spared," he said. "They must use the remaining days to reconcile with their peoples in order to stand united against the onslaught."

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