Hizbullah guerrillas await fight amid ruin

Two Hizbullah fighters offer a glimpse into their views and guerrilla tactics while awaiting the Israeli army.

Staying in the shadows of this ruined town, Hizbullah fighters Haj Rabieh and Abu Mohammed were unfazed by the ominous whine of an Israeli drone overhead.

"We take our chances and we take our precautions, too," grins Abu Mohammed, whose wiry frame and scraggly beard give him the look of a professor rather than a Hizbullah veteran.

Before the fighting started, both men taught elementary school. They joined the Iranian-backed Shiite guerrillas in the 1980s and spent years fighting Israeli occupation forces. While they haven't seen combat in this three-week-old conflict, they are part of Hizbullah's elaborate network in southern Lebanon, remaining in constant contact by radio with other fighters and security men in villages around Srifa.

Providing a rare glimpse into how Hizbullah operates throughout southern Lebanon, these two Hizbullah men, both in their 40s and using false names to conceal their identities, gave a group of Western reporters a tour of this town's immense destruction while letting slip few, but telling, details of how they operate.

The south, they say, is split into a series of military sectors, the smallest subdivision consisting of two or three neighboring villages. Haj Rabieh pulls from his pocket a small laminated sheet of paper, listing Hizbullah's positions in the area and the code numbers for each fighter.

"I am 103 and Abu Mohammed is 121," says Haj Rabieh, who is stocky, bearded, and wears a baseball cap. A thick ring surrounds his finger inscribed with "O Ali," a reference to the prophet Mohammed's cousin. It's taped over, however, as a precaution against being spotted by Israeli aircraft. "It glints in the sun," he says.

When asked how many Hizbullah fighters are present in the area, Abu Mohammed says, "How many angels are there? We are present in the same numbers." United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon estimate there are 800 to 1,000 Hizbullah fighters deployed against Israeli forces, mainly comprised of local residents with deep knowledge of the local terrain that is now a battleground.

Since Israel started shelling southern Lebanon, Hizbullah militants have fired some 1,700 rockets into northern Israel towns, mainly from coastal and eastern sections of southern Lebanon. Wednesday Hizbullah fired over 180 rockets into northern Israel.

They justify the rocket attacks into Israel as a part of war, but stress that they do not enjoy bloodshed. "We don't love killing," Abu Mohammed says. "We look at all people as brothers, but we are defending our land and dignity."

They are prepared for a long conflict. "It doesn't matter," says Haj Rabieh. "If it's long, it's long. If it's short, it's short."

Abu Mohammed smiles and says "Victory is coming, coming, coming."

Although neither man has seen action in the current conflict, as it expands and Israeli troops move northward in large numbers, they will be in the frontline. "We are anxiously waiting for it. We are ready to do whatever we are asked to do," Haj Rabieh says.

Abu Mohammed says that Hizbullah's fighters have a "holy guarantee" of victory. "If I am martyred, I am victorious. If I live and we are victorious, then, well, we are victorious," he says.

Hizbullah had six years following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 to prepare for this conflict. "Israel cannot forget the humiliation of 2000 because Hizbullah broke the myth of the Israeli army," Haj Rabieh says. "Hizbullah provided the model to any people under occupation that their land can be liberated."

Intense bombing on July 19 and 21 by Israeli jets flattened three neighborhoods in this village just south of the Litani River. When this reporter visited Srifa Saturday, it was estimated that at least 35 bodies were still buried under the rubble.

Although most villages in south Lebanon have been bombed , few have been as heavily hit as Srifa. It's population of 8,000 have fled, leaving only around 50 people, mainly the elderly and infirm who are looked after by the squad of Hizbullah men here.

The deserted streets, some of them strewn with rubble from bombed buildings, and the occasional banging of twisted sheet metal caught in the hot breeze lend Srifa an apocalyptic ambience.

Both men carry walkie-talkies and communicate with other fighters using a simple code based on local and personal knowledge.

"Haj Rabieh once loved a woman in the village," Abu Mohammed says. "I could call him and say 'let's meet at the house of the women who melted your heart.' How can the Israeli enemy understand that?"

The conversation briefly switches to food and Abu Mohammed's favorite dish of zucchini stuffed with rice and meat. Then Haj Rabieh picks up his walkie-talkie and calls No. "47." When a voice answers, he says "God give you strength," then "go, go, go." He taps at the handset, changing the frequency, then asks "47" what he had for lunch.

"Rice and potatoes," comes the tinny-sounding response.

There is sufficient food in Srifa and a generator provides power to pump water from a well.

"We are trying to the best of our ability to help the local people. This is the directive of the secretary-general," says Abu Mohammed, referring to Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader.

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