The sheikh behind Hizbullah
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has made Hizbullah a potent military and political force.
Even Israel's most legendary military general – a veteran of every war of Israel but this current one – is believed to have found Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah a worthy enemy.Skip to next paragraph
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Such grudging respect is no surprise to Lebanese. They have watched Nasrallah transform the Shiite militia into the only Arab force credited in the Arab world with defeating Israel on the battlefield – forcing the end of an 18-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 – and a potent political force.
But they have also seen the charismatic cleric spark the latest war in Lebanon. And while exacting a heavy toll on the Jewish state and its long-fostered aura of invincibility, Hizbullah also prompted a massive Israeli bombardment that has cost 10 times as many Lebanese lives as Israeli ones, and ravaged the country.
Calm and in control, with steady eyes and a hint of heavy burden, the thickly bearded sheikh has told rapt Lebanese that Israel could stop Hizbullah rockets, if Israel stopped killing civilians.
Nasrallah mocked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his lack of military experience, in his latest television statement last Thursday, saying the Israeli leader was "an incompetent moron," who did not measure up to Mr. Sharon – whose autobiography Nasrallah has read – or other Israeli leaders before him, except in "committing massacres."
"You are looking at a person who can be classified [in the Islamic world] as a hero, or an Arab Khomeini," says Nizar Hamzeh, a Hizbullah expert at the American University of Kuwait, referring to the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
"The Sunni and Shiite street agree on one thing: After 50 years of Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, Nasrallah was able to change this," says Mr. Hamzeh, who has studied the group for years. "Hizbullah is the model for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hizbullah, backed by allies like Iran, has perfected this kind of guerrilla warfare."
But who is Nasrallah, a man the US named a "Specially Designated Terrorist" in 1995 for his vitriolic opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process?
And how has Nasrallah, backed by patrons Syria and Iran, created the most capable guerrilla force in the region? His black-turbaned visage, framed by wire-rimmed glasses, still festoons the rubble of Hizbullah strongholds in southern suburbs of Beirut and south Lebanon, where the destruction has, so far, boosted his popularity.
"The reason behind our strength these past years, is that we do more than we speak," Nasrallah told the Monitor in early 2000, during a rare interview in Beirut offices that last month were destroyed by Israeli planes. Flashing enigmatic smiles then, he was coy about whether attacks would continue.
"Keeping this issue unknown – which means there is a possibility for [cross-border attacks] to happen, or ... not – is strong for both Lebanon and Syria," Nasrallah said. "In the end, this is an extremely important card to play, and the Israelis know it."
Analysts say Nasrallah powerfully combines an eloquent speaking style with battlefield, political, and spiritual experience. He studied in Shiite centers in both Iraq and Iran, and his spiritual guide – and that of many Hizbullah members, but not all – is Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
With his movement shrouded in secrecy, protected by a tight ring of loyalists, Nasrallah has avoided the fate of his predecessor, who was assassinated with his family by Israeli helicopter gunships in 1992.
"Nasrallah was one of the earliest Hizbullah members, when they were a band of 50 or 100 ragtag, young, unshaven guerrilla guys in the Bekaa Valley, supported by arguably hundreds – perhaps as many as 1,000 – Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982," says Nicholas Noe, a scholar of Hizbullah and editor of the Beirut-based Mideasetwire.com. "He's an original guy."
Back then Hizbullah was an umbrella for a host of militant groups. Elements bombed US and French troops in Beirut in 1983, later blew up the US Embassy, and kidnapped a number of Western hostages.
The US considers Hizbullah a terrorist group, and officials in 1999 highlighted this Nasrallah comment shortly after the signing of the Wye accords: "I call on any Palestinian who has a knife, a hand grenade, a gun, a machine gun or a small bomb to go out during these few weeks and kill the Israelis and the Accord."
But the European Union does not consider Hizbullah a terrorist organization, now that the party holds 14 seats in parliament and two ministerial portfolios in the Lebanese government. UN chief Kofi Annan even met with Nasrallah in 2000.