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Hezbollah Wary; Ponders New Political Role in Lebanon


The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Harriri has sparked political turmoil, nationwide demonstrations and calls for greater democracy and change in Lebanon. VOA's Sonja Pace has just been to Beirut and takes a look at how all this may affect one of the most powerful groups in the country - the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

Travel into Beirut's southern suburbs and enter another world. Gone are the wide streets, the graceful buildings, the trendy shops and cafes of the renovated downtown areas.

In these crowded and poor neighborhoods posters of turbaned clerics adorn street corner signs and the stern gaze of Iranian ayatollahs looks down on passersby.

This is a stronghold of Hezbollah - the Party of God.

Hezbollah was formed in 1982 with Iranian backing and training from Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Its armed militants fought Israeli troops and their Lebanese allies and are credited by most Lebanese for having forced the Israelis to withdraw from Lebanon in May of 2000. Its base of support remains among Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslims, particularly in the south, in the Bekaa Valley to the east and in Beirut's southern suburbs.

Hezbollah has been linked to the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans and in bomb attacks on two U.S. embassy buildings in Lebanon in 1983 and '84, killing over 80 people. Hezbollah was also believed responsible for the kidnappings of dozens of foreigners.

The United States says Hezbollah is a terrorist organization - it's a claim Abdallah Kassir rejects.

Mr. Kassir, one of about a dozen Hezbollah members in parliament, tells VOA that people in Lebanon laugh at what he calls this American propaganda. He says they know better, they know that Hezbollah is a legitimate resistance movement.

Abdallah Kassir says the Lebanese love the American people, but not America's policies, especially toward Israel. He says the American people are suffering from what he calls their government's devious policies.

Mr. Kassir says Hezbollah is not just armed men but also has a political wing that works within the parliament for every day issues such as employment, clean water and better housing.

On Fridays, men acting on behalf of Hezbollah take up collections at mosques to provide help to the needy and to families of those who died in fighting Israel.

These are part of Hezbollah's charity programs, which include the funding of schools, hospitals and agricultural assistance to farmers.

But, it is its military wing that receives the most attention and raises the most ire. Last year the United States and France sponsored a U.N. resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarming of militias - a demand clearly aimed at Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah vows not to give in to such foreign pressure.

Sheikh Nasrallah calls on the Bush administration to re-think its policies toward Lebanon and has even challenged the Americans to try to come and take away Hezbollah's weapons. The words go down well wit supporters.

And, to show its clout, Hezbollah recently staged its own rally in Beirut in support of Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government. Some one half million people turned out.

Professor Sami Baroudi of Beirut's Lebanese American University says it's important to remember that Hezbollah has a solid political base.

"I think Hezbollah remains one of the strongest organizations in Lebanon," he said. "They've been building support for the positions of the party over years. They present a major force in Lebanese politics and Lebanese society."

But, there are signs Hezbollah is concerned about demands it be disarmed and about what a future Lebanese government, run by the anti-Syrian opposition, might do. Sheikh Nasrallah has made the rounds talking with various political factions and received assurances from a senior Druze leader that disarming Hezbollah is not on the opposition's agenda at this time.

An obvious question remains - with Israel out of Lebanon and only a small border issue still outstanding - why does Hezbollah need its own weapons and armed men.

Professor Sami Baroudi says it is in part because Hezbollah sees its role in a wider regional context.

"They see themselves as really playing a role in the Arab-Israeli struggle," he said. "They think that their presence, their rhetoric, their weapons somehow may deter Arab government from making peace with Israel, at least on the conditions being offered now."

Hezbollah is a Lebanese organization, but with strong ties to Iran. The group continues to get an estimated $100 million a year in support from Tehran. Nizar Hamzeh, an expert on Hezbollah at the American University of Beirut, says that gives the issue of disarming Hezbollah broader implications.

"I do not really expect that to take place without some Iranian advice or say over it. That consultation is there between Iran and Hezbollah," he said. "I think this whole process of disarming - you're also looking at trade-off's here - what's in it for them to disarm? What is the guarantee, are internal guarantees enough for Hezbollah to disarm or it requires international guarantees."

Professor Hamzeh says those guarantees will almost surely have to come from Washington - and include assurances that Hezbollah would be allowed to operate as a political party, that it would not be pursued for past accusations.

Last month President Bush said that while the United States continues to view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, he would hope the group would "prove it is not by laying down its arms and not threatening peace."

But, Professor Hamzeh says any future trade-offs would also likely have to be tied to the U.S. relationship with Iran itself and the many outstanding issues there. Professor Hamzeh says disarming Hezbollah will require a regional approach and it's not going to happen quickly or without compromises.

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