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Arab Media Turn Focus on Hamas, Hezbollah - 2003-04-22


The fall of the Saddam Hussein government has put new pressure on other radical governments and groups in the Middle East. One focus of media attention has been militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which are on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Reports say the groups might try to make trouble in Iraq. They deny it, but not everyone believes them.

Arab media reports say groups like Hamas and Hezbollah might attempt to gain political influence in Iraq by, among other things, carrying out suicide bombings against U.S. forces.

Reports about possible militant action in Iraq have come from such widely-distributed media outlets as Egypt's pro-government newspaper al-Ahram and the pan-Arab Qatar-based satellite television channel al-Jazeera. Egypt's independent Gazette has also reported on the story.

Representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah say they have no such intentions. They say they oppose the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, but call that opposition "political," rather than active.

But Hala Mustafa, an expert on fundamentalist groups with the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said it would go against the nature of the militant groups not to try to make trouble for U.S. forces in Iraq.

She said those groups, backed by Iran, work to establish Islamist governments. And she said she's not buying claims of neutrality from these groups.

"No, I don't believe this. I don't believe this. I can take it with suspicion because I think they will back, by nature, the political project of the Islamist Shiites in the south of Iraq," Ms. Mustafa said. "And, this could be supported by the different factions and trends and even regimes in the region."

The Hezbollah spokesman in Lebanon says that's wrong. Abdullah el-Kassir Hezbollah said historically, the Iraqi regime and Hezbollah were intellectually, politically and culturally at odds. Therefore, he said, Hezbollah has no particular desire to fight the forces that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Mr. el-Kassir said Hezbollah has no presence in Iraq and no desire to get involved there.

The spokesman for Hamas in Lebanon, Osama Hemden, said the group hopes to develop relationships with groups inside Iraq. But he also claims violence would not be part of the package.

"Hamas is taking a greater influence all over the Islamic world and Arab world," he said. "In a free Iraq I believe we will have a greater influence because the people who will taste the freedom in Iraq, they will be able to understand what we are facing in Palestine and, because of that, they have to help us more and more. So, they help Hamas and we hope to be able to help them if we can."

But Mr. Hemden insisted such help would only be political in nature, and not include supplying Iraqis with arms or suicide bombers, as has been reported by some Arab media.

At Lebanese-American University in Beirut, the head of the political science department, Sami Baroudi, thinks the media speculation is probably baseless.

"I think, at this stage, neither group really has any commitment to what's going on in Iraq. It might just be propaganda of Hamas," he said. "It may be to show that they have roots outside of Palestine. But, I really doubt either group has Iraq as a priority. They both have their hands full with what's going on in Palestine."

Reports from Iraq indicate that a new political process is already starting, with a variety of new political parties sprouting on a daily basis. Analysts say militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are at least so far not a part of the Iraqi political scene. But there is still concern they might try to get involved, and to export their brand of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, if they see an opportunity for political gain.

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