The leader of Lebanon's Hizbullah has a warning for the United States: Any attempt to destroy the militant group could mean American interests being attacked around the world. But Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also hinted that Hizbullah's military wing, which is poised along Lebanon's southern border with Israel, could be dismantled in the event of a comprehensive Middle East peace.
In an interview with the Monitor in his heavily protected, sealed-off compound in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Sheikh Nasrallah claimed the Bush administration has no evidence linking Hizbullah to acts of anti-American terrorism. He accused President Bush of exploiting the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to pursue a military agenda that benefits US economic and strategic interests.
The US ranks the Shiite Muslim Hizbullah high, if not at the top, of its list of terrorist groups, perceiving the Lebanese radicals as a genuine threat to US interests. But from where Sheikh Nasrallah sits, it is the Bush administration that is the real terrorist organization.
"We believe that the American administration has always exercised terrorist and aggressive policies and backed terrorist groups and regimes," Sheikh Nasrallah said.
He cited the CIA's training of Osama bin Laden and his mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its past support for Saddam Hussein's regime.
"The American administration is a sponsor of terrorism, so ethically and legally it is not qualified to categorize terrorism," he said.
"We believe the Bush administration is being dishonest in claiming to be against terrorism," Nasrallah continued. "It has been exploiting the events of Sept. 11 to achieve its long-term strategies throughout the world."
Last year, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Hizbullah as the "A-team of terrorists" and vowed to take them down "one by one." The US accuses Hizbullah of responsibility for numerous high-profile anti-American attacks such as the 1983 suicide bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, in which over 300 people perished, and the kidnappings of Westerners in war-torn Lebanon in the late 1980s.
One of the most wanted figures in the war on terrorism is Imad Mughnieh, a Lebanese who US officials believe heads Hizbullah's military wing. Mr. Mughnieh is said to have been the organizer of the 1980s suicide bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon as well as two suicide bombings in Argentina against Israeli and Jewish targets in 1992 and 1994.
The mysterious and security-conscious Mughnieh is rumored to have had plastic surgery twice to alter his appearance.
"The American accusations against Mughnieh are mere accusations," Nasrallah argued. "Can they provide evidence to condemn Imad Mughnieh? They launch accusations as if they are given facts."
"Haj Imad Mughnieh is among the best freedom fighters in the Lebanese arena," he said, using the honorific for those who have conducted the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. But Nasrallah refused to reveal whether Mughnieh has a role in Hizbullah.
The Reagan administration's Lebanon policy in the early 1980s was shattered by the devastating suicide attacks against American targets. Some officials who served in the Reagan administration have returned to office under President Bush - including Armitage, who was an assistant defense secretary in the 1980s. Twenty years later, they see Hizbullah as a legitimate target in the war on terrorism.
Since the Iraq war, the Bush administration has applied steady diplomatic pressure on Syria to dismantle Hizbullah's military wing. Syria, which dominates the political process in neighboring Lebanon, grants Hizbullah a certain freedom of action in south Lebanon, where the group's fighters are marshalled along the border with Israel.
It remains unclear to what extent Washington intends to pursue Hizbullah, as not all officials are entirely convinced the group poses a threat to US interests.
Nasrallah insisted that Hizbullah does not possess a "global reach," saying the group was a Lebanese-based resistance movement against Israel.
"To compare Hizbullah to Al Qaeda is wrong," he said. "We are a Lebanese party that fought occupation forces on Lebanese territory. We have not carried out operations anywhere in the world." He said that Hizbullah has had ample justification during 20 years of "very difficult existence" to perpetrate worldwide attacks, but has not done so.
But Nasrallah delivered a clear warning that Hizbullah would fight back if it felt its survival was in jeopardy.
"In such a case, Hizbullah has a right to defend its existence, its people, and its country through any means and at any time and in any place," he said.
According to a former FBI counterterrorism specialist, Hizbullah's "global reach" is not a deterrent against the US taking action against the group, but it does "add layers to the decision-making process."
Similarly, Hizbullah's potential global reach is factored into any planning for action against Syria and Iran, both sponsors of the group. "Should we take action against Iran, not necessarily military action, it's very likely that the response will come from Hizbullah elsewhere" around the world, the source said. "If we were to attack, part of the preparatory process would be to crack down on [Hizbullah] elements abroad."
Yet many analysts believe Hizbullah has no interest in targeting the US and remains focused instead on the struggle against Israel. And it is the group's potential for disrupting the faltering peace process and its lingering threat toward Israel that some analysts believe is the real reason behind Washington's hostility toward Hizbullah.
"It's not Hizbullah that is doing the terrorism out of Lebanon," noted Robert Baer, a former CIA operative who worked in Lebanon in the mid-1980s and investigated the US Embassy bombing. "They didn't do the US Embassy in 1983 nor the Marines. It was the Iranians. It's a political issue here [in Washington] because the Israelis want the Americans to go after Hizbullah."
Hizbullah's battle-hardened guerrilla fighters fought a 20-year war of resistance against Israeli troops, forcing Israel to withdraw unilaterally from its south Lebanon occupation zone three years ago.
Since then, Hizbullah has deployed in strength along the frontier, manning observation posts beside the border fence, often just yards from Israeli outposts, and stockpiling weapons and ammunition.
The US is pressuring Syria and Lebanon to have Hizbullah's forces removed from the border and replaced by Lebanese Army troops. Many analysts believe that dismantling Hizbullah's military wing is a red line for Syria, one the regime in Damascus cannot cross if it is to maintain its credibility in the Arab world.
Although Hizbullah traditionally refuses to reveal its future plans, Nasrallah suggested that its military wing does not have to remain a permanent fixture along the border with Israel.
"Of course, Lebanon and Syria are ready to discuss the resistance in south Lebanon within the framework of a comprehensive settlement that tackles the issues of the [Israeli-occupied] land, [Lebanese] detainees and Palestinian refugees and the future of the region," he said. "If not within this framework, I don't think there's anyone in Lebanon or Syria ready to discuss" disarming Hizbullah.
He is considered one of the most popular leaders in the Arab world. His speeches garner Page 1 headlines and are scrutinized by analysts. His enemies fear and respect him in equal measure. He led the campaign to drive Israel out of Lebanon, turning Hizbullah into one of the most redoubtable guerrilla forces in the world.
"He's the most well-known, popular, and respected Shiite Muslim figure in the Arab world," says Farid Khazen, professor at the American University of Beirut.
"He has shown a great deal of skill and leadership and is beyond compare with any other Islamist leader in the region."
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah wears a black turban, which denotes him as a sayyed, or direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Chubby and soft-spoken, Nasrallah at first glance appears an unlikely leader of a militant group.
He grew up in Beirut. Religiously devout from a young age, Mr. Nasrallah traveled at age 15 to study Islam in Najaf, Iraq, the city holy to Shiite Muslims, with the help of Abbas Mussawi, who would become leader of Hizbullah. Nasrallah fled Iraq in 1978 to escape arrest by Saddam Hussein's regime. Back in Lebanon, he joined Amal, then the mainstream group representing the interests of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim community.
After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, Nasrallah, along with other religious radicals, split from Amal and helped establish Hizbullah. Between 1982 and 1985, Hizbullah was an underground organization known to a few people. In 1985, Israel withdrew its forces to a border strip in south Lebanon, which it would occupy for the next 15 years. That same year, Hizbullah announced its existence and published a manifesto explaining its ideology and goals.
In 1992, Sheikh Nasrallah was elected secretary-general of Hizbullah after Mr. Mussawi was assassinated in an Israeli missile strike on his motorcade.
Hizbullah transformed itself in the early 1990s into a disciplined guerrilla force skilled in the use of antitank missiles, explosives, artillery, field reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering, and communications.