Hizbullah reelects its leader

Second only to Al Qaeda on the US terrorist list, the group has extended its reach and base of support.

Lebanon's Hizbullah organization has reelected its charismatic leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, to a fifth consecutive three-year term as secretary-general, signaling no change in the militant Shiite group's violently anti-Israel stance.

Sheikh Nasrallah's reelection at the end of Hizbullah's internal conclave, a series of meetings held amid great secrecy every three years, comes as no surprise.

The 44-year-old black-turbaned cleric has steered Hizbullah toward mainstream political respectability in Lebanon while sharpening tactics that leave it second only to Al Qaeda on the US list of terrorist organizations. His pragmatic shift has garnered Hizbullah a strong local base and an ability to strike at Israel, and provided a model to other Islamist groups.

"For some party members, Nasrallah is Hizbullah and Hizbullah is Nasrallah," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut and author of the forthcoming book, In the Path of Hizbullah. "He has proven himself a political player, as a pragmatist, as an ideologist, and regarded by some in Hizbullah as having an aura of holiness."

In Lebanon, Sheikh Nasrallah helped soften Hizbullah's violently anti-Western image of the 1980s and burnished its local popularity by providing social services.

But he has also transformed the group's military wing into a highly adept guerrilla force and extended its reach through ties with other groups in the region.

Influence on West Bank cells

Israel estimates that Hizbullah controls - in the form of funding and guidance - between 70 and 80 percentof all militant Palestinian cells in the West Bank. A military operation in the West Bank town of Nablus that commenced Monday was described in the Israeli Yedioth Aharanot daily as a campaign against "Hizbullah's mercenary army."

And the recently released congressional report into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks cited instances of Hizbullah's alleged cooperation with Al Qaeda, including training militants in explosives in 1993 at the group's Bekaa Valley stronghold in eastern Lebanon.

Hizbullah dismissed the report as lacking credibility, claiming that Washington's insistence on connecting the group with the Sept. 11 attacks confirmed its "anti-Islamic policy." The Shiite Hizbullah has always denied having any contacts with the Sunni Al Qaeda movement.

While Hizbullah's hostility toward the Jewish state is rooted in ideology, its antipathy toward the US is more practical, stemming from opposition to the Middle East policies of successive administrations.

Although associated with suicide bombings and kidnappings of Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s, Hizbullah has since avoided confrontations with the US and the West, Professor Hamzeh says.

"The pattern seems to be that Hizbullah is not interested in attacking the US without provocation," he says. "But if the US provokes Hizbullah, then definitely there would be a response."

Hizbullah officials continue to vent strong anti-American rhetoric in public speeches, but the group says that its focus remains on arch-enemy Israel, not the US.

"Hizbullah confronts America politically. If America attacks us militarily, then we have the right to self-defense. But now we consider ourselves in a political fight with America," says Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general. "Our priority is to face Israel. This is our direction."

Blue Line battle

With the approval of Syria, the dominant powerbroker in Lebanon, Hizbullah's battle-hardened fighters square off against Israeli troops along the 70-mile Blue Line, the United Nations-delineated boundary separating southern Lebanon from Israel and Israeli-occupied Syria.

Hizbullah uses the Blue Line as a locus for direct military confrontation with Israel, constantly seeking new ways of unnerving Israeli troops patrolling the opposite side of the border fence. Since the beginning of the year, it has twice lured Israeli troops across the Blue Line and ambushed them, killing one soldier with a missile in January and another with a roadside bomb in May.

"The battle is open with Israel," Sheikh Qassem says, in justifying Hizbullah's efforts to probe and exploit gaps in the Israeli army's defenses. "We are not supposed to make them comfortable. It is a basic rule of combat to make the enemy nervous. And we try to achieve this with whatever tool we have at our disposal, be it political or military."

Some Lebanese critical

Yet Hizbullah's critics in Lebanon accuse the group of pursuing its own anti-Israel agenda at the expense of Lebanon's interests. During the last flare up of violence along the border in July, Israeli aircraft flew low-level supersonic runs over Beirut, a muscle-flexing gesture that came as the Lebanese capital is enjoying its biggest influx of foreign tourists since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

"I can't think of one way Hizbullah's actions along the border serves Lebanon's interests," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator. "It has pitted us against the United Nations and the entire international community."

Still, analysts say that neither Hizbullah nor Israel sees any interest in escalating the simmering conflict along the border. Instead, the Israeli authorities are expressing more alarm at Hizbullah's penetration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hizbullah has been a vocal champion of the Palestinian intifada since its onset in September 2000.

Last month, Sheikh Nasrallah eulogized a slain Hizbullah official as a member of the "team that dedicated their lives in the last few years to support their brothers in Palestine."

It was the clearest admittance yet of the group's direct involvement in the intifada.

Sheikh Qassem says that supporting the Palestinians is a "religious and moral duty" for Hizbullah.

"We believe that we should stand by the side of the Palestinians because it is our cause, too," he says. "That's why we support the intifada with all the means we can."

Does that support include weapons, funds, and training?

"You can put anything you want under 'all,' " he replies. "How can Israel receive all this support from the United States but the Palestinians don't even receive the support of the countries in the region. We are not ashamed of supporting the intifada. We would be ashamed if we were not supporting it."

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