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In the Event of War, What Might Hezbollah Do? - 2003-01-21


In the build-up to a possible war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, analysts are raising concerns that the Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, operating in southern Lebanon, could stir up trouble on another front.

American analysts like Jeffrey Goldberg, who track the Lebanon-based terrorist organization, wonder whether after an extended period of quiet, Hezbollah is about to resume operations against U.S. and other Western targets.

"It is believed that Hezbollah, since 1996, has not struck an American target. The issue of course is what would cause Hezbollah to strike an American target again. There are various speculations that a Gulf War and an American occupation of Iraq would cause Hezbollah to use its external apparatus, its cell structure overseas to strike at American targets," Mr. Goldeberg said.

The guerrillas are celebrated among Islamic radicals and Palestinians for forcing Israel to end its 20-year military occupation of southern Lebanon. After a few months of calm, they have started lobbing mortar shells and rockets across the border again.

Iran is considered Hezbollah's key supporter. The group's Shiite leaders were educated in Iran and inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution there.

Mideast analyst Youssef Ibrahim of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations does not rule out Iranian hard-liners using Hezbollah as a surrogate to stir up trouble along the Lebanese-Israeli border if they feel threatened by U.S. actions in the region.

"Their biggest surrogate is Hezbollah and between Hezbollah in Lebanon and the rather hawkish government of Ariel Sharon, sparks will fly," Mr. Ibrahim said.

Iran is suspicious of U.S. motives for regime change in Iraq and fears it may be the next target. Last year, President Bush described Iran as part of an axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea.

Avi Jorisch of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has tracked the growing influence of Hezbollah's Al Manar television broadcasts. Many of its programs and documentaries, he said, glorify suicide bombings against Israel and violence against the United States. Al Manar's satellite television broadcasts reach far beyond Lebanon's border.

"This station and this organization do not support the peace process. It calls openly for a one-state solution and the destruction of Israel. It calls openly for suicide bombings. There is a lot of anti-American rhetoric on the station. It is not subtle in any shape or form," Mr. Jorisch said.

Last month, Al Manar carried speeches by Hezbollah's spiritual leader calling for Palestinian suicide bombers to hit more than just Israeli targets.

Terrorist experts say Hezbollah also has links to al-Qaida operatives.

With the peace process at a standstill and anti-West anger simmering, analysts warn the threat of violence spreading beyond the region will increase.

Analyst Jeffrey Goldberg adds that Syria's attitudes also could affect Hezbollah's military operations. The country has served as a transit point for weapons and fighters heading to southern Lebanon. "Without Syria in the mix it would be impossible for Hezbollah, logistically, to do many of the things it does," he said.

But most analysts said Hezbollah's actions depend on what happens in Tehran, not Damascus.

Iran improved its international standing by sitting quietly on the sidelines during the 1991 Gulf War against Baghdad, and the recent Afghan conflict.

Analysts said Iran and Hezbollah's reactions this time are linked to the Tehran leadership's power struggle between hard-liners who support the group and reformers who might sacrifice that link to repair Iran's ties with the West.

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