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US Targets Key Hezbollah Leaders

FILE - A Hezbollah fighter holds an Iranian-made anti-aircraft missile, right, as he takes his position with his comrade between orange trees, at the coastal border town of Naqoura, south Lebanon, April 20, 2017.

The United States is moving to ratchet up pressure on Hezbollah, offering millions of dollars for information that leads to the arrest or capture of two of the Iranian-backed terror group's top officials.

The State Department on Tuesday announced a $7 million reward for information about Talal Hamiyah, who runs Hezbollah's External Security Organization, and $5 million for information about Fu'ad Shukr, a senior operative who helped plan the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

"The group seeks to develop and maintain a global capability to carry out acts of terror," Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), said Tuesday, further warning that while there were no imminent threats, Hezbollah was actively trying to target the U.S.

"We in the intelligence community do in fact see continued activity on behalf of Hezbollah here inside the homeland," Rasmussen said. "Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential [U.S.] homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook."

Seen as Iran's partner

U.S. intelligence has long viewed Lebanon-based Hezbollah as Iran's primary partner for terror activities. And officials say Hezbollah operatives have been active worldwide, carrying out a deadly 2012 bombing in Bulgaria while pursuing additional plots in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Cyprus, Thailand and Peru.

Counterterror officials also worry that Hezbollah has successfully expanded its arsenal of advanced rockets and missiles, while building its own weapon production facilities.

And U.S. counterterror operatives have located Hezbollah weapon caches in Kuwait and Nigeria.

In addition to offering rewards for information that leads to the arrest of the two Hezbollah officials, the U.S. is also pressing allies in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia to target the terror group with sanctions to help close financial loopholes the group's operatives have been using to their advantage.

The newest U.S. push against Hezbollah comes as U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to announce whether the terror group's main sponsor, Iran, remains in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal aimed at preventing Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons.

Trump indicated last week he was not inclined to find Iran in compliance and could decertify the deal.

FILE - Hezbollah and Syrian flags flutter on a military vehicle in Western Qalamoun, Syria, Aug, 28, 2017.
FILE - Hezbollah and Syrian flags flutter on a military vehicle in Western Qalamoun, Syria, Aug, 28, 2017.

But what impact that would have on how Iran uses Hezbollah is unclear. Top counterterror officials say they have seen no direct correlation between the deal and Hezbollah's activities.

"The trajectory that we have seen Hezbollah on has continued pretty much unabated throughout the duration of the conflict in Syria," according to the NCTC's Rasmussen.

Money for proxy forces

Yet U.S. military officials have voiced concern that some of the estimated $50 billion to $150 billion in previously frozen assets freed up by the nuclear deal is being funneled into Iran's proxy forces, possibly including Hezbollah.

Further complicating the U.S. effort to counter Hezbollah, some countries view the organization both as a terror group and as a political party. And in Lebanon itself, some Hezbollah members serve as members of parliament and government ministers.

But State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales said Tuesday that countering Hezbollah was a top priority for the Trump administration.

"Make no mistake, Hezbollah has no political wing," Sales said. "It is a single organization, a terrorist organization, and it is rotten to its core."

Sales also said that while Lebanon needs to recognize Hezbollah as a terror organization, the U.S. would continue to work with both the Lebanese government and its military.

Sales called the Lebanese armed forces "an effective partner in defending the border of Lebanon against terrorism threats."

Still, a top Israeli official raised concerns Tuesday that the Lebanese armed forces had fallen under the sway of Hezbollah leaders.

"The Lebanese army has lost its independence and become an inseparable part of the Hezbollah apparatus," Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a speech. "The Lebanese army has turned into an integral part of Hezbollah's command structure."

Some information for this report came from Reuters.