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Hizbullah: friend or foe? (Current Affairs).

The Lebanese Hizbullah organisation has undergone a considerable transformation since it first emerged from the shadows in the early 1980s during Lebanon's 16-year civil war. But it remains to be seen whether US President George W Bush believes that Hizbullah has progressed far enough to be spared inclusion in his war against terror for the organisation's past association with anti-American attacks.

As of the middle of October with US warplanes striking targets in Afghanistan, Washington has given no clear indication whether it intends to expand its war on terror from Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden and his global Al-Qaeda network to Iraq and other countries accused by the US of being state sponsors of terrorism along with radical groups opposed to the Middle East peace process such as Hizbullah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It took almost a week for Hizbullah to release its first statement following the 11 September attacks. The group said it was "sorry for any innocent people who are killed anywhere in the world." But expressions of sympathy were tempered by a warning. "Now the big question is whether what the American administration is planning really has to do with retaliating against the perpetrators of the latest attacks, or whether it wants to exploit those tragic events to exercise more hegemony over the world and practice more unjust policies which have led to this level of hate against the US by many peoples and governments in the world," the statement said. Hizbullah, backed by the Lebanese government, has publicly remained dismissive of Bush's campaign, declaring that it engages in legitimate resistance against Israel's illegal occupation of the Shebaa Farms, a strip of territory claimed by Lebanon running along the country's southeastern border with Israeli-occupied Syria. In what was widely regarded as a sign of defiance to Israel's attempts to include Hizbullah in the US-led "war on terror," the group's fighters at the beginning of October launched an attack against Israeli Army outposts in the Shebaa Farms, the first in over three months.

Washington apparently remains divided over how to deal with Hizbullah, with the defence department and the military advocating expanding the war to Middle East groups and the state department advising caution.

However, a concerted effort to eradicate Hizbullah will almost certainly create serious problems for the fragile anti-terror coalition, with Arab states rejecting the move and even key western allies likely to express reservations.

Hizbullah's potential inclusion on the list of targets stems from its activities in the 1980s when it became associated with a number of high profile attacks against Americans in war-torn Lebanon. They include the suicide truck bombings of the US Embassy in April 1983 in which 63 people died and the US Marine barracks in October that year in which a total of 241 American servicemen perished. In June 1985, gunmen suspected of affiliation to Hizbullah hijacked TWA Flight 847 and killed a US navy diver.

Hizbullah is also associated with the spate of kidnappings of westerners in the mid-to late-1980s in Beirut as well as the kidnappings and executions of William Buckley, a senior CIA operative, and US Marine Colonel William Higgins who was serving with the United Nations in south Lebanon.

Since the end of Lebanon's civil war, Hizbullah is not believed to have been directly involved in any anti-American operations. The only possible exception is the preparation of the bomb used to destroy the US military housing complex in Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 Americans were killed. Members of Saudi Hizbullah -- an Iranian-backed Shia dissident group in Saudi Arabia -- are thought to have received training by the Lebanese Hizbullah in the Bekaa Valley. In June, the US issued indictments against 13 members of Saudi Hizbullah and one unnamed Lebanese linked to Lebanon's Hizbullah.

Nonetheless, since 1991, Hizbullah has devoted most of its attention to ousting Israeli troops from a strip of occupied south Lebanon. The military wing of Hizbullah -- the Islamic Resistance -- was honed into a formidable guerrilla force, forcing Israel to withdraw its troops unconditionally last year.

In 1992, Hizbullah candidates ran in parliamentary elections for the first time, securing a number of seats. The party champions the traditionally impoverished Shia community in Lebanon, building schools, clinics and hospitals.

Yet Hizbullah remains on the US State Department's list of terrorist groups. Furthermore, Bush has said that the groups subject to inclusion in his war against terror are those with "global reach." Hizbullah is believed to have cells operating in North and South America, Europe and the Far East. These cells are generally limited to fund-raising. But their very presence may encourage the US to cite them as examples of Hizbullah's "global reach" and therefore subject the organisation to punitive measures.

In September, Hizbullah was omitted from a list of 27 groups and individuals subject to an executive order freezing their financial assets in the United States.

But US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that Hizbullah and Hamas still remain a potential target.

"These two organisations have been mentioned in a previous US. list," he said. "They have not been excluded from the American effort." Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has even recommended bombing Hizbullah targets in the Bekaa. At the beginning of October, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released the names of 22 "most wanted" people. Three of them are Lebanese, including one of the most audacious and ruthless operatives of the past two decades, Imad Mughnieh.

Although only 39 years old, the elusive Mughnieh has achieved much in his long career of attacking American and Israeli interests. Reporting directly to Iranian intelligence, Mughnieh once headed Hizbullah's Special Security Apparatus. He is thought responsible for planning most of the attacks against Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.

He has a, $2 million bounty on his head for killing more Americans in terrorist acts than any other individual -- a feat now superseded by the perpetrator of the bombings of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Intelligence sources believe that Mughnieh lives in Teheran but visits Lebanon occasionally, travelling on an Iranian diplomatic passport. He may even have had plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Mughnieh was less busy in the 1990s. But he stands accused of perpetrating two bomb attacks in Argentina in March 1992 and July 1994. The first, against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killed 29 people. It was claimed by Islamic Jihad in retaliation for the assassination of Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayyed Abbas Mussawi by missile-firing Israeli helicopter gunships a month earlier. The second targeted a Jewish community centre, claiming 86 lives. It came a month after more than 40 recruits were killed in an air raid on a Hizbullah training camp in the Bekaa Valley. Mughnieh reportedly met Bin Laden in 1994 in Sudan, a connection which has raised the possibility that the Lebanese terror mastermind may have been involved in the 11 September attacks. The other two Lebanese on the FBI list are Hassan Ezzieddine and Ali Atwi. Like Mughnieh, both are described as members of Hizbullah and are wanted in connection with the TWA hijacking. So far, Washington appears to have heeded US Secretary of State Colin Powell's call for a circumspect approach to the war against terror. Powell appears to appreciate that expanding the campaign beyond Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network risks undermining the carefully constructed international coalition on terror.

Syria, Iran and Lebanon, among other Arab states, insist that a distinction be made between terrorism and legitimate resistance. "Our starting point is that we cannot consider (abolishing) the resistance and (handing over) those who stood up to Israeli terrorists," Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said. During a visit to Lebanon at the end of September, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Karrazi said Teheran and Beirut were in agreement in condemning the attacks in the US and terrorism in general. "We both agreed that the concept of terrorism should be identified and it should be distinguished from national liberation movements," he added.

Washingtons western allies may well balk at the prospect of homing in on Arab groups that have little or no connection with the immediate threat posed by Al-Qaeda.

Even Britain, Washington's closest ally in the coalition, has made a distinction between Hizbullah, the Lebanese political party which maintains an armed military wing, and Hizbullah, the terrorist organisation.

In February, the British government named the Hizbullah External Security Organisation (ESO) on its first ever list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

The ESO, a name made up by the British, was charged with all the past terror activity associated with Hizbullah -- the suicide bombings, hijackings and kidnappings. The British clearly differentiated the ESO from the political party represented by MPs in the Lebanese parliament which maintains an armed wing devoted to fighting Israeli forces on occupied Arab land.

The British made a similar distinction with Hamas, recognising the political, social and cultural aspects of the Palestinian group while proscribing its armed wing, the Ezzieddine Al-Qassam Brigades. If Washington decides to make a move on Hizbullah, it may well limit its efforts to placing pressure on Lebanon and Syria to curb the group's anti-Israel activities and hand over Lebanese individuals suspected of perpetrating past anti-American attacks.
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Author:Blanford, Nicholas
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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