Islamist Group Backed by Iran Prepares for Peace

Militant Hizbullah faces prospect of losing its Lebanon base if Syria recognizes Israel

AS tourists trickle back to the breathtaking ruins of the Roman acropolis in this central Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek, the revolutionary guards of the Hizbullah (Party of God) no longer reprimand visitors for wearing miniskirts.

Instead, the Iranian-backed group, which is based in Lebanon and wages an armed struggle against Israel, welcomes visitors to the temples of Jupiter-Helios and Bacchus with banners proclaiming: ''Hizbullah welcomes you with our pioneer values.''

The most potent foe of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians is beginning to show a changing face as it confronts the encroaching reality of Middle East peace.

Hizbullah was founded 13 years ago in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Its ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state in the whole of Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories.

But Hizbullah is moving toward becoming a part of the political process in Lebanon.

''It's a good sign,'' says Ali Husseini, owner of the Grand Palmyra Hotel, the town's only hotel that once hosted the rich and famous who attended the annual Baalbek music festival.

''The Hizbullah is shifting into a different political status. They want to show that they are not only belligerent, but also politically well-established,'' says Mr. Husseini.

In the past three years, the Lebanese government - recovering from the country's disintegration following 15 years of civil war - has reestablished some authority in towns like Baalbek.

''No one can raise their voices louder than that of the government these days,'' boasts Mohammed al-Mais, the government's most senior representative in the town. But Mr. Mais was cautious not to voice any direct criticism of the Hizbullah.

More than a decade of resistance to Israel's presence in the southern security zone has given the Hizbullah a status of legitimacy in Lebanese society that no one dares to challenge.

Larger-than-life posters of the Iranian Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei - and martyrs of the Hizbullah assassinated by the Israelis - are painted on the sides of buildings here.

Barely a week goes by without exchanges of fire between Hizbullah guerrillas and Israeli soldiers in the south of the country.

''Theirs is a holy case,'' says Lebanon's billionaire Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. ''The Hizbullah has a political agenda which we don't agree with.

''But as long as the Israelis remain in south Lebanon, the Hizbullah represents the resistance to the occupation, and you cannot solve the problem - as the United States and Israel are suggesting - by disarming those resisting the occupation,'' Mr. Hariri adds.

Hariri believes that the Hizbullah will shrivel into an insignificant force once the Israelis withdraw as part of a settlement between Syria and Israel.

Although Lebanon is not formally part of the peace talks between Syria and Israel, it is tacitly accepted by both Israel and Syria - and by the American brokers - that there can be no lasting peace without Lebanon.

The US and Israel look for a Syrian guarantee that it will curb the flow of aid to the Hizbullah insurgency through its territory from Iran.

Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani recently said that Iran would accept whatever deal Syria entered into with Israel and would not stand in the way of its implementation.

''Syria will use the presence of the Hizbullah as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Israel,'' says Adnan Iskandar, professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut.

The prospect of becoming a pawn in the international quest for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors has not escaped Hizbullah.

In 1992, the Party of God took part in Lebanon's national elections and did surprisingly well by winning eight seats. It has its own TV station and a nationwide network of social institutions.

Hizbullah leaders insist that the decision was a tactical one to further the cause of the resistance, but the organization is clearly keeping open its options to broaden its political participation once a peace deal is signed.

Hizbullah leaders - like the relatively moderate General Secretary Hussein Nasrallah and spiritual leader Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah - have recently hinted that the Hizbullah has no intention of imposing an Islamic state in Lebanon and it has quietly dropped the symbol for an Islamic state from its emblem.

''The Hizbullah can see the writing on the wall,'' says Professor Iskandar ''It knows that if there is a peace settlement, Iran will accept whatever Syria agrees to. So the question must be asked, 'to what extent can the Hizbullah exist if Syria and Iran withdraw their support?' ''

But Iskandar points to the Hizbullah's ascendant role as a provider of social services in impoverished communities around the country.

''It has the capacity to become a major power in Lebanon because it has adapted its cause and shown flexibility,'' says Hassan Sabra, publisher of the weekly news magazine As Shiraa.

''This worries me,'' adds Mr. Sabra, who survived two gunshot wounds from suspected Iranian agents when he broke the story exposing the provision of American weapons for hostages in Iran in 1987.

''Because like other Islamic groups in the Arab world, the Hizbullah knows what it doesn't want but is not too sure about what it does want.''

Sheikh Subhi Tufaily, a former general secretary of the Hizbullah and now its most senior figure in Baalbek, lives in a heavily protected house guarded by Hizbullah officials with automatic weapons.

In his simple reception room hangs a color photograph of the Ayatollah Khomeini with a caption that reads: ''The hands of the Americans and other superpowers are plunged up to the hilt in the blood of our youth. We will combat them to the last drop of our blood because we are warriors.''

Mr. Tufaily, a severe but polite man who is known as a hard-liner, dismisses any suggestion that the Hizbullah is softening its line in preparation for a peace deal between Israel and Syria.

But he responds to a question about the banners welcoming tourists: ''Many things have been said about the Hizbullah - that they are against foreigners and all humanity. We wanted to welcome visitors and decided to do this through the banners.''

Tufaily then quoted at length from the Koran to show that the shedding of blood in the resistance against Israel was justified - even commanded - as a defensive action against an enemy that had seized Arab land.

But he insists that the Koran does not sanction imposing an Islamic state by force. This has to be achieved by argument and persuasion and it will be no different in Lebanon, he says.

Tufaily defends the Syrian decision to seek peace with Israel but stresses that this does not mean that Hizbullah approves. ''Once a deal is struck between the Syrians and the Zionists, the resistance will not be as free as it is today.

''It could find itself in a complicated situation, but I am confident that - despite this - it will be able to maintain its interests and hold its position,'' he says.

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