Following Khomeini's edict. Lebanon's Shiite groups, which vary in strength and militancy, ultimately look to Iran for guidance

Ayatollah Khomeini has made it to Hamra Street, the ragtag shopping boulevard that in Beirut's heyday was compared to Paris's Champs 'Elys'ees. The stern visage of the Iranian leader peers down from billboards and shop windows and street light posts.

The display is one of sign of how most Shiite Muslims in Lebanon and elsewhere look to Iran, the only major nation ruled by Shiites, for religious and political guidance -- since religion and politics are inseparable in Islam. But they follow Khomeini's edict in different degrees.

Lebanese Shiites are in fact divided into several movements of differing strength and militancy. But none of them are like Western organizations, which tend to be tightly structured.

The largest group is Amal. Now headed by Nabih Berri, who is negotiating for the hijackers in the Beirut hostage crisis, Amal began as a social movement in the early 1970s. Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian-born cleric of Lebanese descent, was the first to mobilize Lebanon's Shiites. He began the group largely in response to the fact that the Shiites had grown from the third to the first largest population group since Lebanon's independence, but were receivng few social or political benefits.

In 1974, Imam Sadr launched a military wing. ``Today we shout out loud the wrongs against us, that cloud of injustice that has followed us since the beginning of our history,'' he said in a speech. ``Starting from today, we will no longer complain our cry.''

``What does the government expect, except rage and except revolution?'' the charismatic cleric asked. ``Arms are man's beauty.'' This statement opened the way for the formation of the largest official Shiite militia in Lebanon.

Over the past decade, Amal has fought Lebanese Christians, Palestinians, and the Israelis -- and occasionally other Shiites, such as the two Shiite-dominated communist parties in Lebanon. Fiercely independent, the Amal Shiites never joined the various coalitions of Muslim factions. Amal is strongest in west Beirut and south Lebanon, where its followers eventually became the most active against the occupying Israelis.

Imam Sadr disappeared in Libya in 1978, and he remains a powerful figure among the Shiites. Mr. Berri's subsequent moderate and secular leadership led to the birth of extremist groups.

The first prominent splinter group was Islamic Amal, founded by Hussein Musavi. A former Amal official, Mr. Musavi broke with Berri during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Islamic Amal is based in the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek, the third of the three main Shiite stongholds in Lebanon, with Syrian and Iranian backing. Western intelligence agencies link Musavi to the 1983 bombing of the United States Marine compound in Beirut. He denied involvement, but voiced approval of the act.

``If America kills my people, then my people must kill Americans,'' Musavi said. ``We have already said that if self-defense and if the stand against American, Israeli, and French oppression constitute terrorism, then we are terrorists.''

But Hizbullah, or the Party of God, also formed in 1982 in Baalbek, is now considered the largest radical movement in Lebanon, although its strength cannot be accurately judged because it lacks any official structure or membership list.

After Washington linked Hizbullah with the bombing last September of the US Embassy annex in Beirut, one seasoned US diplomat in Beirut snickered, ``That doesn't tell us anything. Every Shiite in Lebanon is now Hizbullah.''

This statement was only a slight exaggeration, since any Shiite who adheres to Islamic tenets is, in theory, a member.

The movement, which was started by militant local clerics, is aided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who had deployed in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley after the Israeli invasion.

Within a year, Hizbullah had quietly infiltrated Beirut. At first it did not publicize its presence, but gradually the militant posters and the return to conservative Islamic dress by Shiite women revealed the spread and strength of Hizbullah. Now the group has at least three offices in west Beirut.

Last year Amal leaders expressed concern about the shift of public allegiance from the centrist groups to the extremist factions, particularly Hizbullah.

Last April, the party finally made a public declaration of its principles in ``an open letter to the downtrodden.''

``We have opted for religion, freedom, and dignity over humiliation and constant submission to America and its allies,'' the letter said. It declared the movement's loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and listed four goals in Lebanon:

Expelling the US, France, and ``the influence of any imperialist power'' from the country.

Expelling Israel ``as a prelude to its final obliteration from existence and the liberation of venerable Jerusalem.''

Submission of the Christian Phalange Party, and trial of members for crimes against Muslims and Christians.

``Giving all our people the opportunity to determine their faith, keeping in mind that we do not hide our commitment to the rule of Islam.''

Hizbullah has become the umbrella cover for a host of smaller factions, including Islamic Amal, the Hussein Suicide Squad, Dawa (the Lebanese branch of the Iraq-based al-Dawa al-Islamia), and other smaller movements, according to Hizbullah and Amal sources.

The most famous group in Lebanon, however, is Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War). It has claimed responsibility for bombings against US diplomatic and military installations in Lebanon as well as in Kuwait. It claims to hold seven Americans, who were kidnapped before the hijacking of the TWA jet.

But Islamic Jihad is also the most mysterious group. Oral communication is made by anonymous telephone callers to claim responsibility for various attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere.

The movement, if it can be called that, is thought to be a concatenation of cells, perhaps acting independently and unaware of one another. There are also growing signs that Islamic Jihad has claimed some acts in which it had no part.

Observers suspect that part of their goal has been to build up an image of being a single omnipotent force in the region -- a goal that has in part been achieved.

The writer is a former Monitor correspondent based in Beirut. Her book on Shiites, called ``Sacred Rage,'' will be published soon.

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