Sunday, July 16, 2006

At Crossroads, Hezbollah Goes on the Attack

At Crossroads, Hezbollah Goes on the Attack - New York Times: " Hezbollah needs to reassert its right to maintain its own heavily armed militia against ever louder domestic calls for its disarmament, and its actions burnish its backers, Iran and Syria, as they face Western attempts to combat and isolate them.

There is precedent for specific cooperation between Hamas, the Palestinian group whose exiled leader lives in Syria, and Hezbollah. In 2004, the two groups concluded an agreement to work closely to attack Israel more often.

Since Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 first spawned Hezbollah, or The Party of God, it has set out to prove that adherence to Islam alone will allow Arabs to prevail. Hezbollah used zealots who re-introduced the medieval practice of suicide attacks to the region. It attacked American marines in Beirut, prompting the withdrawal of American forces in the early 1980’s, and eventually forced Israel to end its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

After that, Hezbollah adopted a more public stance in support of the Palestinians as a way of keeping its militant credentials polished. Soon after the second uprising began against Israel in the occupied territories in September 2000, Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid to seize soldiers that eventually led to protracted hostage negotiations.

There are believed to be up to 3,500 active Hezbollah supporters, including some 300 hard-core guerrillas trained under the auspices of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who have maintained a presence in Lebanon almost since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

Intelligence estimates drawn from recent Congressional testimony suggest that Iran subsidizes Hezbollah with $100 million to $200 million annually. But Hezbollah has also come to rely on financial support from Shiite expatriates in the West. Those funds far outweigh what comes from Iran.

Until now, Hezbollah limited itself to using rockets with a range of 12 miles, but for the past several years Israeli officials have warned that Iran had provided more serious systems, including the 240-millimeter Fajr-3 missile, with a range of about 25 miles, and the 333-millimeter Fajr-5 missile, with a range of about 45 miles. The Fajr-5 could reach the northern Israeli city of Haifa and areas even farther south. On Thursday, Hezbollah-backed Al Manar TV broadcast images of the new long-range missiles.

Sheik Nasrallah responded, showing just how Hezbollah, with its activist stance against Israel, manages to capture the imagination of an Arab public longing for anybody who will confront Israel and in the process claim a religious mantle that none of the other governments can come close to matching. That may prompt a backlash against Hezbollah in Lebanon — or, if Lebanese casualties mount, may bolster its credentials as a fighter against Israel.

Sheik Nasrallah’s language plays into the Shiite tradition of being underdogs battling far more potent forces. Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, and Hussein and Hassan, his grandsons, were all slaughtered by larger Muslim armies in what is now Iraq. Those battles gave birth to the Shiite branch of the faith and inspired its cult of martyrdom.

In Lebanon itself, Hezbollah’s growing military and political power has frightened and angered Lebanon’s other sects. But it can play on Lebanese anger against Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years.

Hezbollah’s actions this week defy the very central government of which it is a part. In Lebanon, analysts say, Hezbollah’s main priority is to maintain the weapons that gave birth to it, while also taking over the local franchise for pushing Syrian interests after Syria was forced to withdraw its forces last year in the wake of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination.

Thus it used its cabinet positions as well as its 13 deputies in Parliament to help block any attempts to remove President Émile Lahoud, widely considered a Syrian stooge; it undermined attempts to force Syria to demarcate the border and exchange ambassadors and it blocked economic aid that would have hinged on eliminating hundreds of patronage jobs.

Even as thousands gathered in anti-Syrian demonstrations last year, Hezbollah set up its own pro-Syrian rallies and served as a spoiler. With the Syrians now gone, Lebanese politicians, driven in part by foreign pressure about Hezbollah, have been more concerned about Hezbollah’s potential to wreak havoc with its arms than with its ties to Syria. "

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