Hizbullah's missives to America By Haytham Mouzahem

Hizbullah's missives to America

June 02, 2004 12:00 AM
By Haytham Mouzahem

Within the space of two weeks in May, Hizbullah and Syria sent several messages to the United States concerning Hizbullah's future role in Lebanon and the region. These messages were delivered mainly through the party's victories in the municipal elections in the Bekaa Valley, Beirut's southern suburbs and the South, but also through a highly symbolic Hizbullah rally.

The first message from Hizbullah was electoral. The party's considerable popularity in the three regions of Lebanon (as representative of the country's largest religious community) was designed to underline that it is not a terrorist group. Consequently, the party implicitly emphasized, the US must stop demanding that Syria and Lebanon disarm Hizbullah and marginalize it.

The second message, this time sent by Syria, was that Damascus still holds several bargaining chips in Lebanon and the region, and can use them if the Bush administration intensifies its pressure on Syria. Thus the Syrians, by allowing Hizbullah more leeway in general, underlined that the party's militants could again attack the Shebaa Farms or positions along the border with Israel and destabilize the status quo in Lebanon and the region.

Hizbullah's success in the elections also showed that Syria was willing to allow the party to raise its domestic political profile. This now means Hizbullah is in a better position to reinforce its alliance with its primary ally, President Emile Lahoud, and perhaps use this axis against the president's Christian enemies as well as Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri.

This would allow the Syrians to enhance their influence in Lebanon even after a possible (if unlikely) withdrawal under US duress. At the same time, Syria will continue to maintain good relations with other politicians, especially Berri and Hariri, and to pursue a pragmatic policy of playing the Lebanese balance of power by sustaining rival leaderships, parties and religious groups.

Hizbullah has been accused of focusing too much on the conflict with Israel and, because of this, avoiding a confrontation with the government over declining socioeconomic conditions. As the revolt of Sheikh Sobhi Tufayli showed several years ago, there can be a political price to pay when the party ignores the daily difficulties faced by its supporters, most of whom are poor or from the middle classes. That's why Hizbullah's victory in the elections will force it to get more involved in domestic affairs. This means, at the least, challenging the state's social and economic policies. The clashes between the Lebanese Army and protesters in Hay al-Sellom last Thursday will be a test for the party in this regard.

A third message sent to Washington, again by Hizbullah, was both religious and political. The party issued a strong warning to the Bush administration regarding post-war Iraq at a massive rally held in the southern suburbs on May 20, and which brought out (according to Hizbullah) 500,000 people. Wearing white shrouds symbolizing their readiness to die, the participants expressed solidarity with Iraq and protested against American actions in Najaf and Karbala, where the US is fighting forces loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah threatened that "the occupying forces would pay heavily for any aggression against the holiest Shiite sites in Iraq."

However, Nasrallah was also very careful, as Iraqi Shiite groups were highly critical of Hizbullah's attitude toward Iraq both prior to the US invasion and afterward. The party had tried to please Syria by supporting a proposal for reconciliation between Saddam Hussein's regime and opposition parties in an attempt to avert a US invasion. In the aftermath of Saddam's removal, Hizbullah appeared to change tack by saying it would not interfere in Iraqi affairs. That's why Nasrallah told those at the rally: "The Iraqis can decide when, how and where to fight for the liberation of their country." But he added, in a phrase that reflected the party's ambiguity on involvement in Iraq: "(W)hen it comes to Najaf and Karbala, the tombs of Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb and his son Imam Hussein, we consider ourselves directly involved. In wearing our death shrouds, we show the enemy our readiness to fight and die in defense of the holy shrines and sites."

Hizbullah's warning to the US mainly came across as a religious admonition, since the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who is Hizbullah's religious guide, had warned the US against attacking Najaf and Karbala. Thus, Nasrallah urged American forces to withdraw from the two cities to avoid widening the scale of confrontation with the world's Shiites. Ironically, the Shiite religious leaders of Iraq, especially Ayatollah Ali Sistani, urged their followers not to organize demonstrations that would move on Najaf and Karbala and criticized the presence of Sadr's Mehdi Army in those cities.

Despite the Shiite religious dimension of his warning, Nasrallah did not forget to remind the Americans of Hizbullah's own struggle against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon after 1982. He declared the party's readiness to defend Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Iran against the "Zionist alliance" of Israel and America. It was evident that by speaking of Hizbullah's potential involvement in Iraq, Nasrallah was sending an Iranian and probably a Syrian message to the US that the situation in Lebanon and Iraq could turn against the Americans.

The Iranians specifically sought to underline the fact that they would challenge US attempts to contain Tehran's influence over Iraqi Shiite parties and a future Iraqi regime.

Haytham Mouzahem (hmzahem@yahoo.com) is a Lebanese analyst and researcher who specializes in Middle East and Islamic affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR


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