Why Hizbullah may be the next terror target for US

Officials are determined to brook no interference from terror group as Iraq rebuilds.

A couple of days ago, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah addressed thousands of followers in Beirut as he commemorated a 13-centuries-old battle in Iraq that resulted in the death of a Muslim hero.

"Tomorrow brothers and sisters, and I am not exaggerating or throwing out zealous or sentimental words ... is the beginning of the end of the American era in Iraq and the region," he said.

Sheikh Nasrallah is the leader of Hizbullah, or Party of God. Or the A-team of terror groups, as Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of State, puts it. Created and backed by Syria and Iran, Hizbullah's main purpose is the liberation of occupied Arab lands. But it has also attacked US interests: In 1983, a suicide bomber struck the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241.

"Until Sept. 11, Hizbullah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other organization," says a US government official. "Hizbullah has killed hundreds of Americans, they have worldwide reach, and they foment problems for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

As such, it is likely to be the next target in the US war on terror. In the coming weeks, the Bush administration will continue to rebuild Iraq. In addition, the US plans to reengage on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In both cases, the US is determined to brook no interference.

For two weeks, administration officials have pressured Syria to stop its support for the Saddam Hussein regime. But officials and experts say the real target of the criticism - and a coming trip by Secretary of State Colin Powell - is likely Hizbullah.

"To move the peace process along, Syria and Iran will have to lay off their support of Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas," says Martin Indyk, Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "In that context, Hizbullah has got to be made to understand that its terrorism arm must be put out of existence."

Over the years, Hizbullah has developed into probably the most sophisticated terror group in the world, experts say. It is credited with perfecting suicide bombings, airplane hijackings, and setting off simultaneous attacks, and it is the "best at covering their tracks," says Robert Baer, a former CIA operative.

Hizbullah evolved in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Its primary backing has always come from Iran. But it wouldn't exist without Syria's help. "Hizbullah could only be set up with the full cooperation of Damascus," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. "The only way Iran could get money, weapons, and its Revolutionary Guard Corps to south Lebanon was through Syria."

Hizbullah's relentless string of attacks on Israelis in south Lebanon resulted in Israel's withdrawal in 2000. In that same vein, Syria would like to see Israel ejected from the Golan Heights, which Israel took from Syria in the 1967 war.

Today, Hizbullah continues to operate training camps in Lebanon. Officials say it trains members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are both Palestinian resistance movements. Government officials say there is also at least tactical-level cooperation with Al Qaeda members.

In addition, the group has cells on every continent, including several in the US and in Canada, officials and experts say. Last June, members of a Hizbullah cell in Charlotte, N.C., were convicted of illegal fundraising activities in the US.

Hizbullah is extremely sophisticated, says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror groups at the RAND Corp. in Washington. It has "four different websites in at least three different languages, Al Manar [a satellite TV station], and a radio station."

Yet Hizbullah has also developed a political and humanitarian wing. In the early 1990s, the group began supporting schools, hospitals, and charities, and now even has nine elected members in Lebanon's parliament.

That makes it more accepted as a political movement in the region and among many European countries. This development has made it more difficult for the US to target the group, some experts say, especially considering that it hasn't zeroed in on US interests in some 15 years.

Still, the Bush administration vows to eradicate terror movements and punish states that sponsor them.

"If the president described terrorist groups with global reaches inherently inimical to the US," Mr. Hoffman says, "Hizbullah would have to be on top of that list."

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