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Hezbollah may be next target of U.S. | (KRT) BEIRUT, Lebanon - Following up swiftly on its war in Iraq, the United States wants further changes in the Middle East. Among its targets: Hezbollah, the Islamist "Party of G-d," based in Lebanon, with strong ties to Syria and Iran.

"We have emphasized strongly our concern about continuing terrorist activities of Hezbollah in the region and around the world," U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said after meetings with Syrian and Lebanese leaders this month.

Also serving to put the spotlight on Hezbollah was the visit this week of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, the first by an Iranian leader since Tehran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

"Hezbollah is at the intersection of all the problems the Americans want to solve," says Gebran Tueni, editor of Lebanon's leading Arabic newspaper, An-Nahar.

The United States says Hezbollah gets upwards of $100 million a year, mostly from Iran. Syria, which has 20,000 troops inside Lebanon and virtually runs its central government, facilitates the "transhipment" of arms from Iran to Hezbollah's military wing, U.S. intelligence sources say.

Syria says it supports Hezbollah but denies supplying it with arms. The U.S. State Department lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Lebanon regards it as a legitimate resistance group, fighting Israeli occupation of a controversially defined tract on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Lebanon claims the parcel. Syria supports the claim. But the United Nations, citing old maps, says it is Israeli-occupied Syrian land.

Political analysts here tend to view it as a pretext for continued fighting.

Hezbollah leaders say fewer than 10,000 full-time fighters live in the rugged hills of southern Lebanon, the crowded Haret Hreik suburb of Beirut, and the lush Bekaa Valley. Vastly more "irregulars" can be mobilized if needed, the leaders say.

"Hezbollah (is) a symbol of power and resistance throughout the Islamic world," Khatami said, wrapping up his three-day visit with a news conference. He called for regional calm, demanded that Israel give up its weapons before Hezbollah ever disarms, and swiped at the United States for not knowing "the difference between terrorism and resistance to occupation."

Hezbollah's presence on the Israel-Lebanon border - while the Lebanese army sits six miles away - is a recipe for conflict, says Powell, who wants Hezbollah disarmed and Lebanon's regular army fully deployed.

"This is not the first time the United States has come after Hezbollah rhetorically," says Simon Karam, a Beirut lawyer who was Lebanon's ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1993. "This kind of verbal campaign was conducted by successive American administrations."

But in a post-Sept. 11 world, with U.S.-led forces having crushed Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Washington's resolve may be different this time.

"It was always well-known that Hezbollah had links to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But it wasn't until after Sept. 11 that Hezbollah ended up on the U.S. list of terror organizations," says Farid Khazen, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are both active inside Israel, and have launched a number of suicide attacks against Israelis.

"We should tell the Syrians that we expect them to shut down (Hezbollah's training camps), and if they don't, we are reserving the right to shut them down ourselves," Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said.

The U.S. Congress, through the "Syrian Accountability Act," is considering sanctions against Syria unless it drops its support for groups such as Hezbollah.

The United States and Israel hold Hezbollah responsible for the deaths and kidnappings of hundreds of Americans and Israelis inside Lebanon, including U.S. Marines in the 1980s and sporadic attacks on Israel across Lebanon's southern border.

The group, which deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage calls the "A-team" among guerrillas, perfected roadside bombings and other attacks that helped force an end to Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Operating under other names, Hezbollah's core came together in the early 1980s. It was underground until 1985, when it published a manifesto calling on members to be "fighting soldiers" against Israel and its allies.

"Allah is behind us, supporting and protecting us, while instilling fear in the hearts of our enemies," the document assured.

Today Hezbollah is at once defiant and mainstream. It has eight members in Lebanon's 128-member parliament. It runs a network of schools, hospitals, charitable organizations, and even its own television station, Al-Manar, seen by 10 million viewers in the Middle East.

As the most successful Islamic fundamentalist group, Hezbollah is a model for others, including Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have emulated its tactics in paramilitary operations against Israel.

"Hezbollah is at the intersection of all the problems the Americans want to solve," says Gebran Tueni, editor of Lebanon's leading Arabic newspaper, An Nahar.

In an interview Wednesday after Israeli warplanes penetrated Lebanese airspace and Hezbollah responded with antiaircraft fire, Mohammed Raad, 48, a top Hezbollah official and leader of its parliamentary faction, said: "We reply to their message with our message. Breaking the sound barrier disturbs us. So we disturb them."

Raad said Hezbollah gunners shoot at Israeli planes in the direction of the border so that shrapnel falls onto Israeli towns. Last month, a dud round fell near an Israeli school.

"If there is an overflight, there is also shooting," says Capt. Dieter Bachmann, an Austrian soldier assigned to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, which observes and records incidents on the border.

"Love for Hezbollah here is strong," said Bachmann, seated in a cafe in Aaita ech Chaab, near Lebanon's southern border. "It's everywhere," he said, pointing to a picture of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose black-turbaned visage is as ubiquitous here as JFK portraits are in Boston pubs.

"People are tired. They don't want any more fighting," said Ali Rahme, 36, a minivan driver from Aaita ech Chaab. "But we're scared of Israel. That's why we need Hezbollah here."

The Lebanese government has said it will not send its troops to the border because that would provide security for its enemy, Israel.

"When Colin Powell was here, the president (of Lebanon) told him that the Lebanese army is in the south, but we don't want a nose-to-nose confrontation with the Israeli army so we keep it 10 kilometers (six miles) from the border," said Tewfik Mishlawi, editor of the Middle East Reporter newsletter.

"This is an anomalous situation that you don't find anywhere else in the world," says Khazen, the political scientist. "You have a state. You have an army. But the government sends a militia to man the border."

The landscape of southern Lebanon is dotted with billboards and statues of Hezbollah fighters "martyred" in attacks on Israeli soldiers, who along with a proxy army made up of Lebanese sympathizers, occupied a "security zone" in southern Lebanon to prevent attacks on Israel.

The roadside art, presented in a theme-park atmosphere, includes a Star of David sculpture cut in half by a katyushka rocket, and a giant silhouette of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, godfather of the Islamic revolution, perched atop the rusty remnant of an abandoned Israeli tank.

At a Hezbollah museum near the border, tickets bear an inscription that says the price of admission - one Lebanese pound, or less than a dollar - buys a bullet for the resistance.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services