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Hezbollah Feeling the Squeeze

International pressure on Syria and Iran to sever terrorist ties threatens the support that the Lebanese militants rely on.

May 03, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

KHIAM, Lebanon — Here in southern Lebanon, where portraits of suicide bombers hang from power poles and an abandoned Israeli prison has become a tourist attraction, the militant Islamic group Hezbollah is viewed as the guardian of liberation and the provider of social services.

Mohammed Nayef, 33, welcomed the Israelis who invaded Lebanon in 1982 to drive out Yasser Arafat's hated Palestine Liberation Organization, then turned against them when they stayed on as occupiers for 18 years. "I spent six years here, suffocating in the summer, freezing in the winter," Nayef said, opening the iron door to a small cell in the prison. "Hezbollah gave us freedom, and now it gives us schools and clinics."

The United States and many non-Arab governments have a very different view of Hezbollah. To them, the group is an attack dog for Syria and Iran, a terrorist organization with a global reach whose rejection of Israel's statehood presents a major obstacle to peace. Washington believes that Hezbollah was responsible for the April 1983 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks there that killed 241 Americans six months later.

Hezbollah will be at the top of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's agenda during his three-hour visit to Beirut today to meet President Emile Lahoud. Believing the group poses a threat to the United States and Israel, Powell will ask that Lebanon rein in Hezbollah and require it to disarm, Western political sources said.

"If that is his idea, his mission is a failure before it starts," Sheik Naim Kassem, Hezbollah's second-most influential figure, said in Beirut. "We are a Lebanese political party with a popular base and nine members in parliament. We have the support of the government, and our military actions have been limited to the liberation of our land."

Striking a more conciliatory tone than have some of his colleagues recently, Kassem insisted that Hezbollah had no intention of sending fighters or suicide squads to Iraq, saying, "It is the responsibility of the Iraqi people to decide the form of their resistance."

His remarks contrast sharply with those of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who warned in a speech recently, "The people of the region will receive [America] with rifles, blood, arms, martyrdom and martyrdom operations."

As international pressure has mounted on Syria and Iran to cut their support of terrorist groups, Hezbollah has for the most part assumed a low profile. Its hard-core fighters along the border with Israel have melted away into the southern suburbs of Beirut, and instead of demanding that Lebanon become an Islamic state, leaders such as Kassem now talk of a state in which different religions coexist.

Off the record, Hezbollah supporters admit they are uncertain what lies ahead. If Iran yields to U.S. pressure, the group stands to lose as much as $100 million a year. If Syria yields, it will lose its spiritual benefactor and its supply line to a country that uses Hezbollah as a bargaining wedge in attempts to win the Golan Heights from Israel.

"These guys aren't dumb," said Timor Goksel, a Turk who has spent 24 years in southern Lebanon as the spokesman for a U.N. peacekeeping force there. "They keep up with world news and they analyze what is happening. They've earned a very important place in the Arab psyche because their resistance forced Israel to withdraw.

"But I think they need to change their attitude and ... not try to be a regional player. Their dilemma is how to keep their own people happy and excited without bringing undue pressure on Lebanon and Syria by their actions."

From the prison here, five Israeli outposts are visible in the foothills of snowcapped Mt. Thomas. Not a shot has been fired here since January.

The only Hezbollah guerrillas visible are a handful of men who, often unarmed, staff a few sentry posts along the border. In some cases, their crude outposts are within 15 or 20 yards of ship-sized Israeli concrete fortresses bristling with antennae.

Sometimes, the Israelis and Hezbollah trade verbal insults, and occasionally on holidays Hezbollah gives schoolchildren stones to throw at the Israeli positions. The rocks bounce harmlessly off the thick, windowless walls.

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