Hizbullah chief offers carrot, stick
Hassan Nasrallah hints group's military wing could be dismantled if a full Mideast peace is achieved.
The leader of Lebanon's Hizbullah has a warning for the United States: Any attempt to destroy the militant group could mean American interests being attacked around the world. But Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also hinted that Hizbullah's military wing, which is poised along Lebanon's southern border with Israel, could be dismantled in the event of a comprehensive Middle East peace.Skip to next paragraph
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In an interview with the Monitor in his heavily protected, sealed-off compound in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Sheikh Nasrallah claimed the Bush administration has no evidence linking Hizbullah to acts of anti-American terrorism. He accused President Bush of exploiting the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to pursue a military agenda that benefits US economic and strategic interests.
The US ranks the Shiite Muslim Hizbullah high, if not at the top, of its list of terrorist groups, perceiving the Lebanese radicals as a genuine threat to US interests. But from where Sheikh Nasrallah sits, it is the Bush administration that is the real terrorist organization.
"We believe that the American administration has always exercised terrorist and aggressive policies and backed terrorist groups and regimes," Sheikh Nasrallah said.
He cited the CIA's training of Osama bin Laden and his mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its past support for Saddam Hussein's regime.
"The American administration is a sponsor of terrorism, so ethically and legally it is not qualified to categorize terrorism," he said.
"We believe the Bush administration is being dishonest in claiming to be against terrorism," Nasrallah continued. "It has been exploiting the events of Sept. 11 to achieve its long-term strategies throughout the world."
Last year, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Hizbullah as the "A-team of terrorists" and vowed to take them down "one by one." The US accuses Hizbullah of responsibility for numerous high-profile anti-American attacks such as the 1983 suicide bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, in which over 300 people perished, and the kidnappings of Westerners in war-torn Lebanon in the late 1980s.
One of the most wanted figures in the war on terrorism is Imad Mughnieh, a Lebanese who US officials believe heads Hizbullah's military wing. Mr. Mughnieh is said to have been the organizer of the 1980s suicide bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon as well as two suicide bombings in Argentina against Israeli and Jewish targets in 1992 and 1994.
The mysterious and security-conscious Mughnieh is rumored to have had plastic surgery twice to alter his appearance.
"The American accusations against Mughnieh are mere accusations," Nasrallah argued. "Can they provide evidence to condemn Imad Mughnieh? They launch accusations as if they are given facts."
"Haj Imad Mughnieh is among the best freedom fighters in the Lebanese arena," he said, using the honorific for those who have conducted the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. But Nasrallah refused to reveal whether Mughnieh has a role in Hizbullah.
The Reagan administration's Lebanon policy in the early 1980s was shattered by the devastating suicide attacks against American targets. Some officials who served in the Reagan administration have returned to office under President Bush - including Armitage, who was an assistant defense secretary in the 1980s. Twenty years later, they see Hizbullah as a legitimate target in the war on terrorism.
Since the Iraq war, the Bush administration has applied steady diplomatic pressure on Syria to dismantle Hizbullah's military wing. Syria, which dominates the political process in neighboring Lebanon, grants Hizbullah a certain freedom of action in south Lebanon, where the group's fighters are marshalled along the border with Israel.
It remains unclear to what extent Washington intends to pursue Hizbullah, as not all officials are entirely convinced the group poses a threat to US interests.
Nasrallah insisted that Hizbullah does not possess a "global reach," saying the group was a Lebanese-based resistance movement against Israel.
"To compare Hizbullah to Al Qaeda is wrong," he said. "We are a Lebanese party that fought occupation forces on Lebanese territory. We have not carried out operations anywhere in the world." He said that Hizbullah has had ample justification during 20 years of "very difficult existence" to perpetrate worldwide attacks, but has not done so.
But Nasrallah delivered a clear warning that Hizbullah would fight back if it felt its survival was in jeopardy.
"In such a case, Hizbullah has a right to defend its existence, its people, and its country through any means and at any time and in any place," he said.