The sheikh behind Hizbullah

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has made Hizbullah a potent military and political force.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Adding to his guerrilla credentials, Nasrallah is reported to have been wounded during fighting against Israeli troops in the 1980s. But it was the 1997 death of his own son, Hadi, while fighting in southern Lebanon, that did most. "That was the first event that catapulted Nasrallah's personality into the hearts and minds of so many Lebanese, including Christians and Sunnis, many of whom cried when he refused to negotiate with the Israelis to get his son's body back," says Mr. Noe, speaking from Kuwait City. "That brought half the country to tears."

But more tears have come, in the wake of Hizbullah's cross-border raid on July 12, which netted two Israeli soldiers. The aim was to trade them for three Lebanese prisoners – a decades-long practice in the Mideast, which Israel and Hizbullah had conducted as recently as 2004 – but it came just two weeks after Hamas militants abducted an Israeli soldier.

Hizbullah officials have admitted surprise at the ferocity of the Israeli response.

"Anytime [Hizbullah] launched an operation, they always had a checklist: What does it mean for Hizbullah? For Shiites? For Lebanon? For Syria and Iran?" asks Timur Goksel, a 24-year veteran adviser of UN forces in south Lebanon.

"Based on that criterion, as a result people were uprooted, houses were damaged, people got killed, and people [now] live in miserable conditions," says Mr. Goksel, who teaches at the American University of Beirut. "Hizbullah actually hurt the interests of its own people, which is very unusual."

"Hassan Nasrallah is not a good strategist, but he is a man of wisdom: He knows what's right or what's wrong," says Nizar Abdel-Kader, a retired Lebanese general and military columnist.

"[But] don't judge the man based on this strategic mistake," says General Abdel-Kader. "Because he did not foresee that the Israelis were waiting for him ... to free their war machine against Lebanon."

"Where they went wrong, they did not think of the humiliation element," adds Goksel, noting that Israeli commanders have sought to "set the record straight" after their 2000 pullout from Lebanon was branded a defeat.

"This perception of Israeli invincibility was a key asset, and they wanted to get it back," he says. "The misjudgment was not only on the Hizbullah side, but a bad one on the Israeli side, too. They did not realize that Hizbullah is not afraid of them."

Battling Israel for 18 years in southern Lebanon, under Nasrallah's guidance, taught Hizbullah that "these are people who can be hurt, people who make mistakes, and can be blown up and forced to retreat," says Goksel. "I've seen four [Israel wars in Lebanon], and I've never seen the Israeli army move so slow, so shy."

One reason is improved tactics and a thorough commitment to security that starts at the top.

"Even Nasrallah's life and daily activities are under the microscope of Hizbullah's security," says Hamzeh of AUK. "Nasrallah's daily life is scripted all the way from delivering his speech to going to bed. He is protected by people who can't be penetrated."

All Nasrallah's experience underlines his certitude and calm, despite the violence engulfing Lebanon and northern Israel.

The same care is applied to evolving tactics, even in peacetime, in preparation for possible war.

"Even the fight on the border is not a classical guerrilla [action], but modified in a certain way that fits the terrain, and depends on the mood of the conflict," says Hamzeh. "So there is always a triangle, with three to five people. You may get to [the southern village of] Bint Jbail, only to find two other angles coming at you; then they regroup and reform."

Nasrallah's "measured tone since the beginning of this conflict has really struck me, because it does reflect in the field," says Noe, who is editing a book of key Nasrallah speeches. "They are a very calculating group; they're not crazy. They're not going to use their whole arsenal, [but] ramp things up in a very specific, proportional response.

"Ultimately, this is why Hizbullah is considered a very politically savvy and responsible actor" by many in Lebanese politics, says Noe.

Goksel notes that one of Nasrallah's achievements has been to give Hizbullah a "monolithic appearance," when in fact there are serious political and religious rifts rarely aired in public.

"What if the Israelis kill Nasrallah?" asks Goksel. "[They] would start looking for a new one.... Hizbullah will probably go to four or five different pieces, but everybody will keep their guns with them.

"Now, there is definitely a sense of control over the firing of those guns," says Goksel. "But look at that force that is fighting: Do you want [it] to be without a leader?"

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