Lebanon fears US will settle old scores in its new war

The US ambassador's remarks may signal that Hizbullah will be targeted.

As President George W. Bush mobilizes his global campaign against international terrorism, Lebanon's violent past may be catching up with it.

For Lebanon to join a proposed international coalition, it would likely have to hand over groups and individuals it considers its liberators from Israel.

Chief among these organizations is Hizbullah, a Shiite Muslim group backed by Iran, which stands accused by Washington of a wave of suicide bombings against US targets, and kidnappings of American citizens, in war-torn 1980s Lebanon.

But the organization has changed radically since Lebanon's lawless years of civil war. For the past decade, members have won parliamentary seats and championed much-needed social services for the impoverished Shiite community, building schools, clinics, and hospitals. Moreover, its professional guerrilla fighters turned the tables against the occupying Israeli army in south Lebanon, forcing Israel to withdraw its troops unconditionally last year.

Still, Lebanon needs all the friends it can get in helping to reduce a national debt nudging $26 billion. Beirut cannot afford to be at the receiving end of a campaign against terrorism by the US.

A source close to the Lebanese government says the US has not asked Beirut to hand over persons wanted for past anti-American attacks. The matter was discussed in "general terms" with "no one being mentioned specifically," the source said. But the US ambassador to Beirut, Vincent Battle, said this week that Lebanon continues to shelter "terrorist organizations."

"As you know, we have in the United States a list of terrorist organizations that is updated every year. That is likely to be a subject of dialogue in the near term."

Lebanon has seized upon the comments as proof that the US intends to settle old scores by demanding the curbing of Hizbullah's activities and the extradition of those believed to have been involved in anti-American attacks.

Hizbullah's alleged involvement in anti-American terror is long and bloody. On April 18, 1983, the US embassy on Beirut's seafront was destroyed by a suicide truck bomber, killing 63 people, including the Middle East chiefs of the Central Intelligence Agency who were holding a meeting in the building at the time.

Six months later, a truck carrying 1,200 pounds of dynamite exploded in the entrance of a US Marines barracks, killing 241 US servicemen. Less than two years later, militants hijacked TWA Flight 847 and kidnapped its American passengers for 17 days. More than a dozen American citizens were kidnapped in Beirut in the mid-to-late 1980s, in some cases, held for years.

On Sunday, Hizbullah released a statement describing the attacks last week as "tragic events," but warning against an over-reaction by a vengeful US. "We call for caution and not falling prey to a state of fear and panic that was intended to be spread throughout the world to give the US administration free rein to practice all types of aggression and terrorism under the pretext of fighting aggression and terrorism," the statement said.

Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a senior Shiite Muslim cleric who has been described as Hizbullah's spiritual guide, described the attacks as a "human massacre unacceptable to mankind and all religions, especially Islam."

Yet, the CIA believes Mr. Fadlallah personally blessed the two suicide bombers that blew up the US Embassy and the Marine barracks in 1983. A CIA-trained Lebanese hit squad tried to kill him in May 1985 with a car bomb. The explosion killed 80 bystanders, but he escaped.

The relationship between Fadlallah and Hizbullah has since grown icy, but he remains on Washington's list of specially designated terrorists. Also on the list are Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's charismatic secretary-general; and Sheikh Sobhi Toufeili, Hizbullah's first secretary-general and leader during the turbulent 1980s.

A supplemental list is believed to exist with 27 names of Lebanese wanted by the American authorities. Topping the list is Imad Moughnieh - the Osama bin Laden of the 1980s. Reporting directly to Iranian intelligence, Mr. Moughnieh is thought to have been responsible for planning the anti-American suicide bombings and Lebanon's kidnapping crisis. He is under US indictment for the murder of a Navy diver during the 1985 TWA hijacking, and has a $2 million bounty on his head.

Mughnieh reportedly met Mr. bin Laden in 1994 in Sudan, a connection which has raised the possibility that he may have been involved in last week's suicide bombings. "I think the Americans' main concern is finding out about groups in Lebanon connected to Osama bin Laden. That's their top priority," says a European diplomat. "They need Lebanon on board the coalition. It's not the time to go after all those old cases."

Not all Western countries view Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. Britain, America's closest ally, makes the distinction between Hizbullah's political party, and its External Security Organization, a name the British have given the group's "terrorist" wing.

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