Long hated by the defense establishment in Washington, Lebanon's Hizbullah organization would seem to be a logical target for the US war on terror after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been overthrown. And for Israel, America's staunch ally in the Middle East, Hizbullah poses a potential threat the organization has an extensive military presence along Lebanon's southern border with the Jewish state.
The Israeli army has compiled a file on Hizbullah listing all its anti-Israel actions over the past two years. The file, which is expected to be made public shortly, is similar to the dossier on Yasser Arafat detailing the Palestinian leader's alleged connections with terrorism.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly showed the Hizbullah file to US officials during his trip to Washington this week, the latest initiative in an ongoing diplomatic offensive by Israel against the militant group. Mr. Sharon also said Syria's support for Hizbullah presented a threat of the highest order, said an Israeli official quoted by The Associated Press.
But Israeli rhetoric fails to daunt Hizbullah. "When we hear Israel begging the US, and we see Sharon carrying files to the US on Hizbullah's capabilities on the border, we know the significance of the resistance in Lebanon as a strategic option for the Arabs and the intifada," says Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, Hizbullah's southern commander. "Hizbullah will remain the nightmare of the Zionist entity."
Some diplomats here believe that a showdown between Hizbullah and the Israeli army is inevitable, arguing that Israel cannot live indefinitely with a hostile and well-armed guerrilla force menacing the northern part of the country.
But despite periodic attacks by Hizbullah against the Israeli army, Sharon has chosen so far not to respond heavily. This could be in expectation that once Washington has dealt with Saddam Hussein, Hizbullah will be the target of phase three in America's war on terror.
But despite the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the destruction of the Al Qaeda powerbase, the US authorities seem no closer to catching Osama bin Laden or eradicating the threat Al Qaeda continues to pose against American interests. Removing Saddam Hussein could be just as drawn out, especially as no realistic alternative to the Iraqi ruler appears to have been found.
"We could have three phases running at the same time with none of them resolved," says Prof. Nizar Hamzeh, head of the political science department at the American University of Beirut.
Furthermore, there is little hard evidence connecting Hizbullah to contemporary acts of international terrorism which would help rally European and Arab nations against the group. The European Union has so far resisted pressure to add Hizbullah to its own list of terrorist organizations, although that could soon change.
"The question is how we treat groups that are traditionally considered terrorist but have not lately targeted US interests," says a Mideast-based US official.
For the hawks in Washington, Hizbullah's association with anti-American terror attacks in Lebanon in the mid-1980s is justification enough. But sending the Marines into Lebanon to tackle Hizbullah is not realistic, says Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
"Our ability to broker peace in the region would be destroyed as we would be identified 100 percent with Israel," Mr. Walker says. "Accordingly, we would be unable to help Israel find a secure place in the region except through continuing to maintain overwhelming force, which we would have to pay for."
The Pentagon's view of Hizbullah is an outdated desire for revenge, says Professor Hamzeh. "The Pentagon says that Hizbullah is second only to Al Qaeda, based on Hizbullah's actions during the 1980s. They can't let that file go," he says. "The other side of the argument is that Hizbullah is a different organization now and its problem is with Israel and not the US."
Hizbullah has undergone a considerable transformation over the past decade. Unlike Al Qaeda, Hizbullah is a multi-faceted organization, deeply enmeshed in the fabric of Lebanese society. It has a credible presence in the Lebanese parliament and runs an extensive and efficient social welfare network which helps the poorer districts of Lebanon.
If Israel were to move decisively against Hizbullah with American backing there would be "important negative ramifications for the US role in the region," says Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University and an expert on Hizbullah.
"Yet another brilliant move in America's charm campaign vis-a-vis the Muslim world," he says. "I have no doubt that there are voices in the Pentagon these days calling for unilateral US action, but, for now at least, adult supervision prevails."