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WARFARE IN LEBANON

Militia Leader Banks On History of `Resistance'

July 15, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Lebanese of all sectarian and political stripes point out the same piece of personal history when they talk about Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. "There's something you should know about him," they say.

Then they tell how Nasrallah's son was killed fighting against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 1997. They speak with admiration of a stoic Nasrallah who eschewed sympathy and insisted that his son was like any other soldier who died in the battle.

In a region awash in cronyism and corruption, the sacrifice of a son for nationalism gave the Shiite Muslim cleric a deep well of political currency among people from opposing sects and hostile political movements.

As it turns out, it's a currency he may dearly need.

The same Lebanese who thanked Nasrallah for their liberation from Israel might well end up blaming him for provoking a new armed conflict with the Jewish state and putting their lives and economy at risk.

The Hezbollah leader allowed his guerrillas to cross the border into Israel and capture two soldiers this week, leading to the warfare and unleashing trepidation over Hezbollah's role in Lebanon and its backing from Iran and Syria.

Ever since Hezbollah guerrillas fought to drive Israel out of Lebanon, from which the Jewish state withdrew in 2000, the Lebanese have nurtured a palpable gratitude to its fighters and to Nasrallah.

Even the group's political opponents, those who advocate the disarmament of the militia, are always careful to temper their complaints with praise for the "resistance" role in purging Lebanon of invaders.

Nasrallah personified Lebanon's debt to Hezbollah, and under his guidance the organization grew into a political powerhouse. While insisting that Hezbollah will keep its armed militia, he has steered the organization to join the government and take on a greater political role. He is now widely considered the most powerful man in Lebanon, the head of the majority Shiite community.

"He's our only statesman," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of "Hezbollah: Politics and Religion" and a professor at the Lebanese American University. "Whether we respect him or not, if we have one figure in Lebanon who can claim to speak on behalf of Lebanese, it's him."

Nasrallah's life has been marked by flight from political strife. He was born in Beirut in 1970, the first of nine children, and was a teenager when Lebanon's civil war forced the family out of the capital to seek refuge in the south.

Like most young men of his generation, he joined a militia -- the Shiite group known as Amal.

A religious teenager, Nasrallah traveled to the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, as a Shiite scholar. But he was forced from Iraq, too, by a secular government. He returned to Lebanon and served as a loyal Amal member.

The 1982 invasion by Israel set the stage for the founding of Hezbollah, or Party of God. The group was created with the goals of eradicating the state of Israel and establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon. Nasrallah was a founding member and has headed the organization since 1992.

One of the most reviled figures in Israel, Nasrallah lives a life of secrecy in the shadow of assassination threats. He rarely leaves the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah exercises total control over security and services. His whereabouts are kept secret, and his public appearances and interviews are scant.

As the fighting erupted between Israel and Hezbollah, however, Nasrallah has been the most visible face in Lebanon.

"We face two choices, not as Hezbollah, but as Lebanon, its government, army and politicians," he said Friday. "Either we succumb to the conditions that the Zionists are demanding ... or we remain steadfast and count on God and the holy warriors and the people."

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