Hezbollah Leader Assumes Higher Profile

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a charismatic figure who has made bold pronouncements in the face of a growing conflict with Israel. Robin Wright of The Washington Post tells Scott Simon more about Nasrallah.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, spoke by telephone on Lebanese television yesterday. He said that Hezbollah is ready for outright open war with Israel.

Mr. Nasrallah had been the head of Hezbollah since 1992, and under his leadership, the organization has actually gained some respect in corners of the Arab world for its civic work and military victories against Israel, prompting Israel's withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Robin Wright covers the region for the Washington Post and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT (Washington Post): Good to be with you.

SIMON: You have interviewed this man who I guess you'd describe as kind of a cross between Ayatollah Khomeini and Che Guevara. What's he like? What do we need to know?

Ms. WRIGHT: He's the man who took over the movement at a very young age. He was only 32, which is - by the standards of Lebanon's aging warlords and its senior clerics - almost a kid. He has transformed the movement. He took it from being most famous for its bombings of American embassies and marine compounds and hostage seizures to a group that decided - his first big decision, in fact, was whether to join Lebanese politics.

In 1992 when he took over, he decided they should run for parliament. And there's been a gradual evolution within the movement as it penetrated deeper and deeper into conventional political society. Last year, when it ran again for the forth time for parliament, it decided that it would even join the government, and it holds two cabinet ministries.

This year, in a very unusual alliance, he buddied up with a right wing former general who is a Christian and is likely to be, or is now, one of the most popular candidates for president of Lebanon, which elections are next year.

SIMON: But although Hezbollah has been participating in parliamentary elections, they have not put down the gun.

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, that's the big issue, of course. It's the last private army in Lebanon. And it is very well armed, courtesy of Iran - estimated 13,000 rockets and missiles, much of, some of which has landed in Israel in the last couple of days. It is the most contentious issue inside Lebanon. And it really has to do with the final stage of unraveling its civil war.

And that is, can you push the control of the Lebanese states throughout all territory? As long as Hezbollah has its own defense or military strategy, as long as it has fighters along the border and its own military turf, the state is not in control of the whole country.

SIMON: The way you describe it - and forgive me for extrapolating too much - it's almost as if Hezbollah is trying to pull off what amounts to an armed coup, except they're fighting Israeli forces, not Lebanese ones. That by taking on the Israeli forces, they hope to capture the Lebanese government.

Ms. WRIGHT: Oh, I don't think so at all. One of the interesting things is the way the rhetoric has changed. That in the early days they were very critical of the Christians. And they talked about eliminating sectarianism altogether, because the Shiites now are a plurality of the 17 sects in Lebanon. They're now about 45 percent.

In any democratic elections they could win, but they've increasingly talked about saying we will continue with the sectarian system because we realize that the Christians would be too nervous. They realize that's of importance for the state.

But the issue is, is Hezbollah just a Lebanese force or is it a regional force? And I suspect one of the reasons this happened - and they decided to move across the border and nab these two Israeli soldiers - is in sympathy to what's happening with the Palestinians.

Hezbollah sees itself as not just another Lebanese faction. It seems itself as a regional player with a broader mission.

SIMON: And how do you feel about Syrian and Iranian influence?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I think Syria and Iran influence is very strong with Hezbollah. I mean Syria makes it logistically possible to get Iranian arms. But I also think that Hezbollah is also a very much an independent player that Nasrallah has - in the 14 years since he took over the movement - established himself as the one who makes a lot of the strategic decisions. It may take advice, encouragement from Iran in many ways.

But I'm not convinced, unless I see something tangible, that Iran actually ordered them to do this. This is part of Nasrallah's broader strategy.

SIMON: Would Nasrallah take a phone call from the United States?

Ms. WRIGHT: When I - it was the last question I asked him. I said, would you talk to the United States under any circumstances? And in fact he said under some circumstances he would. Needless to say, the United States will not talk to Nasrallah.

SIMON: And forgive me for making this such a quick question. When he says, I promise you victory, what is victory for him in this situation?

Ms. WRIGHT: I think he originally did this because he thought he could get a prisoner swap. I don't think he believed that there would be this prolonged, open warfare. I think he's negotiated a prisoner swap once for 766 in the past - two years ago, in fact. And he was, I think, looking for something like that again.

SIMON: Robin Wright, diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, and author of the upcoming book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you.

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Hezbollah's Changing Mission

Lebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Leba

Lebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Lebanon, May 24, 2000. Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma hide caption

itoggle caption Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma

Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a response to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. The name means "Party of God," and the group derives its ideological inspiration from Iran.

Hezbollah garners moral support and financial assistance from both Iran and Syria, but analysts say the group acts independently. And over time, its original aim of driving Israel out of Lebanon has expanded into a powerful political and social force among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, and possibly beyond.

Hezbollah entered Lebanese politics since 1992, and currently holds 14 seats in Lebanon's 128-seat national assembly, as well as the cabinet post of minister for water and electricity. It also draws support through its own private network of social and educational services. Its crowning achievement, though, was to force Israel's military to end its 22-year occupation in May 2000.

At the time, the militant group received widespread praise, including from Christian and secular Lebanese who opposed its hard-line ideology. But even as some hoped Hezbollah would then give up its arms and morph into a strictly political entity, Hezbollah set about expanding its influence.

Despite persistent international pressure, the group did not abandon its weapons nor deploy away from the Israeli border. And Lebanon's fragile government — a delicate balance of the country's Shia, Sunni and Christian communities — was not strong enough to force those measures.

Lebanon found itself in a bind after it promised to disarm all "militant" groups. But earlier this year, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the government avoided a showdown by designating Hezbollah a "resistance" force against Israel instead of a militia. In this way, according to a State Department report Cordesman cites, Lebanon also exempts Hezbollah from money laundering and terrorism financing laws.

Just after the Israeli pullout, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, also went on satellite. One member said, "in this way, our jihad will continue."

The channel carries an odd mix of children's programming, anti-Israel game shows, and militant propaganda. Al-Manar has been banned in France, and declared a terrorist outfit by the United States.

In March 2004, again according to a State Department report, Hezbollah signed an agreement to join the Palestinian group Hamas in joint attacks against Israel.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has publicly referred to this assistance. And in recent years, Israel has accused Hezbollah of illicitly shipping arms to Palestinians via the Mediterranean Sea.

There is a long list of terror acts for which the United States and others blame or suspect Hezbollah, all the way back to suicide truck bombings of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The list also includes the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight, in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed, and attacks on the Israeli embassy and cultural center in Argentina in the1990s.

Hezbollah has also seized Israeli soldiers before. In 2000, members disguised as U.N. soldiers, with a mock white U.N. vehicle, kidnapped three Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and a reservist. Sheik Nasrallah declared the reason was to trade them for militants held by Israel, and three years later, it worked. In a German-brokered deal, Hezbollah turned over the reservist and the bodies of the three soldiers (they had been killed). In exchange, Israel released 430 prisoners from Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

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