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Lebanon's Hezbollah savors increasing legitimacy

As some Western nations seek contacts, Hezbollah's No. 2, cleric Naim Qassem, says the group has 'convinced the West it is a popular, authentic and important movement that cannot be ignored.'

April 13, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — On one point, the United States agrees with Hezbollah's No. 2 leader, Naim Qassem, and not such allies as Britain.

Neither Qassem nor Washington distinguish between the Shiite militant group's political wing, which has members serving in the Lebanese Cabinet and parliament, and its military wing, preparing for the next round of battle against Israel. "Hezbollah has a single leadership," said the 57-year-old cleric in a rare interview with an American reporter recently.

"All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership," he said. "The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel."

To the alarm of Israel and the United States, Hezbollah has been enjoying increased legitimacy across the world. The British Foreign Ministry recently said it would shift course and begin talks with Hezbollah political leaders. And Latin American lawmakers and European peace activists attend Hezbollah conferences on "resistance" to Israel.

As the militant group emerges from a period of relative silence after the 2006 war with Israel and the subsequent Lebanese political crisis, its leaders appear more confident and determined than ever to represent Lebanon's Shiite Muslim population as well as challenge Israel.

This month Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, announced the group's candidates for parliament in crucial June general elections. In a low-key speech announcing personnel changes, he sounded more like a corporate executive than the leader of arguably the Middle East's most powerful nonstate actor.

But that does not mean Hezbollah is becoming a typical political party. It views itself as under threat and continues to maintain a militant posture and its weapons. Numerous Hezbollah leaders have been assassinated over the years, including military commander Imad Mughniyah last year.

Qassem's visitors must abide by extensive security precautions. After being swiped with a metal detector and handing over their cellphones last week, two reporters and an interpreter were placed into the back seat of a dark, late-model SUV with tinted windows, driven around south Beirut to a parking garage, then escorted into a nearly identical vehicle before being driven to yet another parking garage and guided up the elevator to a modest conference room. There, the white-bearded, white-turbaned cleric who is Nasrallah's deputy sat on a couch and outlined the Iranian-backed group's plans, vision and relations with the outside world.

"In recent years, the Western perception of Hezbollah has changed," he said. "Even governments have started to look for reasons to communicate and have relations with Hezbollah. . . . This indicates that the Islamic resistance has convinced the West it is a popular, authentic and important movement that cannot be ignored."

The U.S. and Israel consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization and refuse to have direct dealings with it. But U.S. policymakers and diplomats recognize that Hezbollah's network of charities, clinics and schools gives it broad appeal among Lebanese Shiites and its militant stance has made it popular in the Arab world.

For Hezbollah, public relations have a clear purpose.

"The more we clarify our image to the people of the West, the more pressure they will put on their governments to stop supporting Israel," he said.

Qassem spoke slowly, measuring each word and smiling amicably between questions during the hourlong interview. He rejected Western accusations that Hezbollah conducts operations overseas, but declined to answer questions about the group's current military and intelligence capabilities. Though he said Hezbollah has no deal to come to the aid of its partners Iran or Syria if they came under attack by Israel or the U.S., all bets are off if there were a foreign attack.

"We let people guess," he said. "We have an organized, efficient movement in all fields, and the results are clear."

Though many Western analysts say the coming parliamentary elections will decide whether Lebanon will tilt further toward the West or toward Iran and Syria, Qassem insisted that the election would augur no radical changes, including any attempt to dismantle Hezbollah's formidable arsenal of weapons, as called for by the United Nations.

"The resistance has proved its purpose with the great victory of July 2006," he said, referring to the war with Israel. "All subsequent attempts to turn the weapons into a problem have failed."

If Hezbollah's alliance of Shiites, leftists and Christians manages to beat the pro-U.S. March 14 ruling coalition of Sunnis, Druze and Christians, he said, the group would "try a new, successful experiment in governance that differs from that of the current majority's."

Qassem said he was skeptical about President Obama's recent outreach efforts to Iran and the Muslim world. Qassem's rhetoric resembled that of Tehran's leadership.

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