``I'm a soldier of the almighty God,'' Muhammad says bluntly, ``and I have decided to shoot down all those who do not shout Allahu-Akbar [`God is great'].'' Muhammad is a member of Hizbullah (``Party of God''), a pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim group based in Beirut. Since the group emerged in the summer of 1983 in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Islamic extremism has been growing in Muslim west Beirut.
There are more and more militants who, like Muhammad, believe that Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini is the leader of the entire Islamic people, and that ``American imperialism'' is the source of all evil on Earth.
All Western journalists are spies for the Central Intelligence Agency, Muhammad says, playing with his handgun.
The links between Hizbullah and Iran are evident: The walls of the group's bureaus in Beirut are plastered with Iranian-made posters of the Ayatollah. Hizbullah militants distribute leaflets published in Tehran, the Iranian capital, and sing Arabic translations of Iranian revolutionary songs. Beirut-based correspondents from the Tehran weekly, Keyhan al-Arabi, meticulously cover all Hizbullah activities.
Western diplomats here say the rapid growth of Hizbullah is helping destabilize Lebanon. The diplomats say that Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, is pressuring Iran to stop supporting Islamic fundamentalists in Lebanon.
Syria, which occupies part of the Bekaa Valley, has reduced the number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards there from 1,000 to 400. Tehran has also reportedly accepted the Syrian demand that those Revolutionary Guards no longer train Lebanese militiamen.
But these restrictions are apparently failing to stem the Islamic tide in Lebanon. During a recent demonstration in Sidon organized by a local Sunni fundamentalist leader, Sheikh Maher Hammud, thousands of Hizbullah supporters tore apart Lebanese flags. The movement is also gathering steam in the northern port of Tripoli under another Sunni religious leader, Sheikh Chaaban.
The CIA and other Western intelligence services suspect Hizbullah of being behind several terrorist actions in Lebanon over the past 18 months -- for example, the suicide attacks on American and French military barracks in October 1983.
Western diplomats here tend to believe that the Islamic Jihad (``holy war''), which claimed responsibility for the October 1983 attacks, is in fact an umbrella title used by Hizbullah militants in their contacts with the Western press. But these diplomats admit they have no concrete evidence to support their conjecture.
Most recently, the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for several recent kidnappings of foreigners in Lebanon, and claims to be holding five Americans.
In Lebanon, the religious guide for Hizbullah militants is Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. Every Friday at noon Sheikh Fadlallah, surrounded by a swarm of bodyguards, enters the prayer room of the Bir-el-Abed mosque in south Beirut. Amid shouts of anti-US slogans, he climbs a few steps to the rostrum.
``A good believer doesn't waste his time trumpeting that he is ready for the holy war. He rather plunges into it,'' Fadlallah tells the throng.
``Death to Israel, death to America, death to France, long life to Khomeini,'' the faithful answer.
Two hours later, in his apartment on the fifth floor of a building near the airport road, the sheikh tells a small group of Western correspondents that he sees the present Lebanese regime as illegal.
``I would like an Islamic republic to be set up in this country,'' Fadlallah says. But he concedes that ``it is not possible for the moment. We will have to discuss the matter with Christians and convince them that Islam provides the best government system.'' The Lebanese Cabinet posts are currently divided among the nation's Christian, Muslim, and Druze factions.
Sitting between the green flag of Islam and a picture of Khomeini, Fadlallah answers each question carefully. He is intelligent and skillful.
``Although I have very good relations with Imam Khomeini, I don't receive any money from him,'' Fadlallah says. On the issue of terrorism, he says ``it is the right of oppressed people to defend themselves against imperialism.'' Last month, however, he condemned the kidnappings of Westerners in Beirut. Fadlallah denies he is the leader of Hizbullah: ``I'm no politician, I'm a man of religion.''
Hizbullah members say that Fadlallah is only the religious guide. The organization itself is run by a secret council of seven lay men, among whom is said to be Hosseyn Mussaui, a Shiite leader based in Baalbek in the Bekaa. France bombed his training camp after the 1983 attack.
Mr. Mussaui's cousin, Abu Haydar Mussaui, who has been accused by Western intelligence services of having prepared the attacks, is also said to be on the organization's ruling council.
Most followers of Fadlallah's radical brand of Islam are former supporters of the mainstream Shiite movement Amal.
``We don't approve of what Hizbullah people do, but we understand them,'' explains a member of Amal. ``There has been so much suffering in the Shiite community and most of the teen-agers are poorly educated.''