At crossroads, Hezbollah goes on the attack

Analysts say shelling pleases its patrons

July 16, 2006|By NEIL MACFARQUHAR AND HASSAN M. FATTAH | NEIL MACFARQUHAR AND HASSAN M. FATTAH,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Just over a year ago, after the ejection of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah found itself at a crossroads. On one hand, it seemed to be casting its lot with Lebanese politics, as its candidates struck an alliance with Christians and joined the Lebanese Cabinet. Some even pointed to Hezbollah as a model for how a rogue militia can be co-opted and turned away from lawlessness.

On the other hand, Hezbollah clung to its arms. Some believed it was biding its time, allying its interests with its sponsors in Iran and Syria.

With its cross-border attack on Israel last week, Hezbollah apparently made its choice.

Israel's shelling of Gaza provided Hezbollah with an opportunity to show solidarity with its Islamic brethren in Gaza. But analysts pointed to other motives: Hezbollah needs to reassert its right to maintain its heavily armed militia against ever louder domestic calls for its disarmament, and its actions burnish its backers, Iran and Syria, as they face Western attempts to combat and isolate them.

There is precedent for cooperation between Hamas, the Palestinian group whose exiled leader lives in Syria, and Hezbollah. In 2004, the two groups concluded an agreement to work more closely to attack Israel more often. In an echo of this week's violence, soon after the second uprising began against Israel in the occupied territories in September 2000, Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid to seize soldiers that led to protracted hostage negotiations.

This week's fighting also signals that Hezbollah and its allies are girding for a longer-term confrontation. Hezbollah sees a joint U.S.-Israeli attempt to reshape the region in the Western image, through the invasion of Iraq and the emphasis on democracy, and it is determined to block it by asserting the supremacy of Islam. Here, Hezbollah's move serves the interest of its patrons, Iran and Syria. Their relationship is so opaque that even students of the movement hesitate to suggest that Syria or Iran can issue direct orders to Hezbollah. But the links are strong, with Iran providing substantial financial assistance and arms, while Syria provides logistical help, as well as political backing.

Since Israel's 1982 incursion into Lebanon first spawned Hezbollah, or the Party of God, the radical organization has set out to prove that adherence to Islam alone will enable the Arabs to prevail. Using zealots who re-introduced the medieval practice of suicide attacks to the region, Hezbollah's attack on U.S. soldiers in Beirut prompted the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the early 1980s and forced Israel to end its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

There are believed to be up to 3,500 active Hezbollah supporters, including 300 hard-core guerrillas trained under the auspices of Iran's Revolutionary Guards who have maintained a presence in Lebanon almost since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

Hezbollah virtually controls a swath of southern Lebanon, and the shadow of Iran looms large. In town after town in the south, the streets are hung with banners showing the pantheon of Iran's ruling ayatollahs. Intelligence estimates drawn from recent congressional testimony suggest that Iran subsidizes Hezbollah with $100 million to $200 million annually. But Hezbollah has also come to rely on financial support from Shiite expatriates in the West, a sum that can far outweigh that coming from Iran, said Timur Goksel, a lecturer at the American University in Beirut who spent 20 years working in southern Lebanon as a U.N. official.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, asserted in a May 2005 speech that Hezbollah had more than 12,000 rockets, all of which were believed to be various forms of Katyusha rockets provided by Iran. That coincides with estimates by Israeli and Western officials.

Until now, Hezbollah limited itself to using those with a range of 12 miles, but for the past several years Israeli officials have warned that Iran had provided them with longer-range systems including the 240-millimeter Fajr-3 missile, with a range of about 25 miles, and the 333-millimeter Fajr-5 missile, with a range of about 45 miles, meaning it could strike the northern Israeli city of Haifa and areas to the south. On Thursday, Hezbollah-backed Al-Manar TV broadcast images of the new long-range missiles.

The use of the longer-range rockets has led many to conclude that Iran gave at least tacit approval for the current clash.

"Would Hezbollah use a sophisticated missile that can hit Haifa without permission from Iran? I doubt it," said Abbas Milani, chairman of Iranian studies at Stanford University.

After Hezbollah took credit for pushing the Israelis out of southern Lebanon in 2000, it adopted a more public stance in the support of the Palestinians as a way of keeping its militant credentials polished. That has helped provide Shiites and Sunnis with a common goal, although deep suspicions remain. One quarter seemingly horrified by the attempt to exhibit a more assertive Islamic and Shiite presence in the region is in traditional Sunni states and Western allies.

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