BEIRUT'S teeming Shiite suburbs have long been forbidden ground to foreigners. In the period since February 1984 when the Lebanese Army lost control of west Beirut to Islamic militia groups, few have dared to set foot there. Rumors of hostages languishing in basement dungeons somewhere between the neighborhoods of Bir al Abed and Ouzai have been enough to dampen the fervor of the most enthusiastic. But now the situation has begun to change.
Behind the shift is Iran's new president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He has convoked Hizbullah's top leadership at least three times since coming to power, according to moderate Shiite sources in Beirut.
Many of the hard-liners in Hizbullah dislike the new tone of Iran's leadership.
Mr. Rafsanjani has urged peaceful coexistence between Lebanon's warring factions in addition to sounding a stern condemnation of kidnappings, says one Shiite cleric who was recently in Tehran.
Security sources in west Beirut confirm that Imad Mughnieh, who is reputed to be the chief artisan of the kidnapping of foreigners in the Lebanese capital, is under house arrest in Tehran, as are several of his more zealous surrogates.
No one in Hizbullah, to be sure, has been seized by a sudden warmth of feeling toward the United States, long guilty in the minds of most of coddling Israel, their most hated foe.
``It is the duty of every Muslim to liberate Al Qods [Jerusalem],'' according to Zayyed, Hizbullah's district commander in Bir al Abed. ``We will not end our resistance to Zionism until Palestine is free.''
Drawings of Al Aqsa mosque with a Star of David above it and the words ``liberation, a duty,'' adorn walls throughout the southern suburbs. In addition, there is the slogan ``Death to America'' and the portrait of a young child crying as Israeli bombs fall on its head.
The stern visage of Ayatollah Khomeini is present on posters throughout the suburbs, overseeing the tangible achievements of his revolution.
Modern high-rise apartment blocks and well-organized social services have improved the lot of Lebanon's once-downtrodden Shiite minority, in part thanks to Iranian money.
Occasional palm trees and old Ottoman buildings with red tile roofs have survived urban sprawl in Bir al Abed as have sand drifts, blowing in from the nearby Mediterranean.
About 85 percent of the suburbs are controlled directly or indirectly by Hizbullah, which loosely surveys its turf by placing members in civilian dress to watch over most streets or buildings. Since Syria's demilitarization of the southern suburbs last January, armed Hizbullah checkpoints have disappeared from street corners.
Ahmed, a Hizbullah official with gentle eyes and a soft smile that belie the Kalashnikov rifle by his side, asked matter of factly what people thought of Hizbullah abroad. As if to anticipate the eventual negative response he insists, ``We just try to live by the precepts of Islam. It is like we were in [the Iranian religious center at] Qom here. People are very religious.''
Hizbullah has gained popularity as the authentic Islamic resistance movement at the expense of the more Western-oriented Shiite militia Amal.
Amal has been practically evicted from the southern suburbs, although it remains strong in southern Lebanon.
``Amal is a tool of the Syrians,'' according to Ahmed. ``The Syrians don't set foot in Bir al Abed. And if they do, no one talks to them.''
Not everyone is positive about Hizbullah. Mounir, a 19-year-old who also lives in the southern suburbs, is critical. ``These people want to send us back to the Middle Ages. For them, women should swim in chadors and men must not play cards, because it's un-Islamic.''
In the streets, a radio can be heard broadcasting the Hizbullah radio station, which plays a liturgy to Imam Musa Sadr, the late Shiite religious leader who disappeared while visiting Libya in 1978. People beat their chests as a sheikh sings the incantation.
The home of Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, Hizbullah's spiritual guide, is in the Beirut suburb of Hart Hreik, just up the road from the ruins of the former Palestinian refugee camp of Borj el Barajneh.
The scenery is lunar: buildings with stories collapsed upon each other and piles of rubble lining the streets.
Sayyid Fadlallah wastes no time in proclaiming his cause. ``Violence by the Shiite community in Lebanon is a reaction to Israeli violence against it,'' he complains. ``The foreign press call Shiites terrorists, but they never stop to condemn the Israelis who slaughter innocent children and civilians every time their planes raid Lebanon. Isn't that a crime?''
With respect to the group's alleged goal of setting up an Islamic republic in Lebanon, Fadlallah is deliberately vague. ``Islam solves all of man's problems, so why shouldn't we live by Islam?''
Concerning foreign hostages held by groups associated with Hizbullah, he deflects the question deftly; first denying involvement in the kidnappings, then subtly defending them.
``We are against the taking of hostages which is cruel. But the suffering of the Lebanese people has led to many acts of cruelty on all sides.''
It is widely assumed in Beirut that Fadlallah has no direct control over the hostages - whose fate is variously attributed to Sheiks Sobih al-Tofeili and Abbas Mussawi. But it is not true, either, that he has no influence in the matter whatsoever.
Ayoub, a Shiite who lives in the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbeck, now under Hizbullah control, described Fadlallah's influence in Hizbullah. ``He is not a military leader within the group, but when he speaks the faithful listen to him.''
Indeed, Fadlallah's Friday sermons at the Imam Reda mosque in Bir al Abed are the most-attended services at any Beirut mosque. Overflowing crowds fill the streets outside the ornately carved stone building as loudspeakers spread his message.
If many Hizbullah extremists wear the blank look of ``true believers,'' still others blend in easily with the population. Young militiamen resemble their counterparts on both sides of the demarcation line: kids without an education, earning a living the only way they know how.
``The real cause of chaos in Lebanon today,'' according to one French journalist who used to live in the southern suburbs, ``is that an entire generation of children has grown up with the urban street warrior as its role model.
``Hizbullah definitely has some legitimate causes,'' he continues. ``But their tactics have gotten them nowhere, if not into the annals of Lebanese terrorism.''