Lebanon

BRIBES AND KNOCK-OFF CHOCOLATE BARS by Hanson Hosein

BEIRUT, May 10, 2003


Holiday Inn Beirut, May 2003It's hard not to imagine I'm sleeping on the graves of others, here in my king-size bed.  The Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel is too modern and luxurious to harbor any ghosts from the brutal Lebanese civil war that lasted fifteen years.  And began here.  

The war's first shot was fired in this part of Beirut, on day the magnificent Holiday Inn was set to open, right across the street.  Thus began, what everyone here calls, “The War of the Hotels.”  

Both would ultimately lose.  The Intercon was razed to the ground, and was only replaced in 2000 with the five-star hotel I'm staying in now.  The Holiday Inn is a bullet-scarred shell, gazing hollowly -- without a single window intact -- upon this city rebuilt in the style of a French Riviera town.  Locals tell me its most famous occupant was a French-born sniper who managed to murder two hundred people from his perch upon high, until his militia employer finally killed him itself, embarrassed by his inability to discriminate between an innocent child and a soldier.

What has the war done to Lebanon?  It's hard to tell, even harder to judge.  There are still 15,000 Syrian troops who occupy the country, and technically, Syria calls the shots around here.  Then again, there's the Syrian/Iranian-backed Hizbullah that controls the southern border with Israel.   One Syrian colleague told me before coming here, “not to trust the Lebanese,” that the war had made them cavalier and materialistic.

It was hard not to believe him when we crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon.  Syria, in many ways, is the “anti-America.”  There are no big fast food chains there, you can buy a “Mols” chocolate bar that bears a striking resemblance packaging-wise to a “Mars” bar.  Coca-Cola does not exist.  Young people get their quick Great Satan fix from the Internet, and from bootleg shops which stock the latest CD's and American movies (Syria has not joined the World Trade Organization, so technically it's legal to sell and purchase Russian knock-offs of the Band of Brothers DVD set, as well as Microsoft XP, just no Arabic music - local artists are apparently entitled to their royalties.  So I managed to pick up some John Denver and Placebo for $2 each.  I promise to buy the real thing when I get back to North America...well at least the Placebo).

At the border, forty-five minutes from Damascus, a sign warmly sends you off with “Assad's Syria wishes you greetings.”  From the cult of personality of the Syrian dictatorship dynasty, suddenly you encounter the first taste of Lebanon: a large Dunkin' Donuts placed conveniently right there in No Man's Land between Syria and its protectorate.  Yes Dorothy, you're back in Kansas.

Sort of.  First, the shakedown courtesy of Lebanese customs.  A thousand Syrian pounds to begin (around $20).  And then another $30.  An hour later, how about $50 to grease another officer's palms so we can get our TV gear into Lebanon?  Despite having an equipment list stamped and authorized by the Lebanese Ministry of Information?  Three days later, I get a bill from our Lebanese fixer who met us at the border to “facilitate” entry.  Another $130 in “tips.”  Call them bribes.  When it comes to expense claims, call them “Customs Facilitation Fees.”  When it comes to my tolerance for this kind of behavior, call it corruption and a rip-off.  The last time our man came back to me for cash, I opened my wallet, revealing a hundred dollar bill, as well as a twenty-dollar one.  I gave him the twenty, and told him to tell the mafia dude inside that was all I had, and all he was going to get.  My principles cost me another hour of waiting at the border.  But that's okay, I wanted to finish “The Shipping News” anyway.

Totalitarian government brings a certain amount of order to the way people drive in Syria.  Freewheeling democracy (okay, so Syria chooses the President, and the government's leaders are ethnically balanced according to an archaic census taken decades ago) means utter chaos on the streets of Beirut.  Double yellow lines down the middle of the street aren't even a suggestion, they're just paint put down by some well-meaning contractor who knew his task was meaningless from the beginning.  Someone suggested to me that Beirut was lawless for so long, this is how people learned to drive.  Or unlearned to drive.  I was actually relieved to see a number of traffic accidents along the way.  Just desserts it seems.  These aren't Italians driving the Grand Prix with precision skills.

Rebuilt Beirut and memories of the war, April 30, 2003 HRHHowever, they are nearly French.  Beirut has been magnificently rebuilt...into what some architecture critics might call the Arab wing of Euro Disney.  I actually like it.  There are dozens of sidewalk cafes and restaurants downtown, where those suicide drivers are prohibited.  Lebanese wine is really good.  Every night, the locals descend on these places to see and be seen, dressed in their finest European garb, leaving little to chance fashion-wise, or imagination-wise.  Bashar, this isn't your father's Syria.  

Sometimes I imagine Beirut is what Baghdad might look like if the French actually had joined the war, then monopolized the reconstruction effort.  The “Allo” taxis look like they came from Paris.  So do the street signs.  And the license plates.  “Entrecote” bistro makes a “steak frites” to rival the best in “l'Hexagone.”  The name of the organization in charge of re-building Lebanon is called “Soldiere.”  I get by in French here, as much as I do in English - and sometimes with better service (if I don't shave for a day, I'm expected to speak Arabic).  Yellow-faced Homer Simpson might call them “cheese eating surrender monkeys” in his American animated sitcom, but the French certainly know the fine art of “après-la-guerre.”  Or at least their Lebanese acolytes do.

But I'm painting a caricature after only two weeks here.  I would definitely return as a tourist.  The restaurants are excellent, and the people are fun.  And certainly, most of the country is not like Beirut.

There's even a Palestinian refugee camp ten minutes away from the shining downtown core.  At the Burg Al-Baragneh, there are four generations of Palestinians who are stuck between a plastic tent version of a Dome of the Rock in the middle of a nearby roundabout, and a very hard place.  Israel will never take them back.  Lebanon is afraid they'll upset the country's delicate ethnic balance and send them plummeting back into another bloody civil war.  They're not allowed to work, or become lawyers, doctors or dentists.  Conveniently, this is where America's latest terrorist bogeyman, Hizbullah, keeps its offices.  Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah keeps house behind a tall black iron fence, policed by a guy in a pillbox.  In Jerusalem, and possibly in Washington D.C.,  he's a wanted man - dead or alive.  In Lebanon, he's a powerful and respected political leader.

To some of my colleagues' disappointment, I was not blindfolded and bundled into the trunk of a car to interview a top Hizbullah official.  I wasn't even physically searched.  My interview subject kept smiling and laughing.  He wore a yellow polo shirt and a nylon jacket.  I accused him of terrorism courtesy of American intelligence, said his group was using a paltry excuse to wage war against Israel, and Hizbullah still invited me back for a tour of its stronghold in the south a few days later. [for more about that, see my “serious” article at the end of this essay]  My wife joked that I should tell them how they nearly killed me a few years ago when I was on the “other side' of the border and suddenly found myself on the wrong end of a Hizbullah Katyushah rocket attack against northern Israel.  I used my better judgment and decided not to engage in such humor.  Heather still recalls how cute I looked in the news footage scrambling away at top speed from the explosions.

Despite all my petty complaints, I'm happy to be here now.  After three and a half years of stop-and-go history-in-the-making (sort of) while based in Tel Aviv, I get the real sense there's momentum in the Middle East.   For better or worse, America's war against Iraq has loosened the bonds of decades of convention, unleashed the demons, opened Pandora's box, or simply put all the regimes out here on notice that there's a new sheriff in town.  

This region does continue to frustrate: case in point when I walked out on Yassir Arafat's Fatah committee in the Ein el-Helwe refugee camp this week, because they insisted that I had to interview them.  Translated, that meant I had to shake the hands of ten men who had nothing better to do, drink tea with them, pay homage to their leader behind the desk, and then listen to him spew the party line when I was there to talk to people about what it was really like to be conveniently ignored by the Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab governments.  It would have been a waste of time.  

Instead, Ghassam, a worldly man who had watched the entire Iraqi war on MSNBC, took me aside later, and told me how most people in the camp knew, in their hearts, they would never go home.  That the world would sell them out in the name of peace, that most of their young would take offers of citizenship in the U.S. and Europe, and the rest would be folded into Arab countries after America paid everyone off.  He's right you know.  In hindsight, to be on the safe side, I should have been a little more polite to Fatah.  The next day, I heard that there was a shootout in the camp between the rival factions.  And a grenade thrown into the empty marketplace.

Still, it's been fun to be part of all this as a Travelite TV correspondent, trying to predict the next hotspot then heading there with my little camera and laptop computer.   I really don't miss producing, nor the CBC.  I do miss home.  Next stop though, Amman, and then possibly Tehran.  My parents tell me I'm 1/32nd Iranian after all.  That ought to be worth something somewhere.

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INSIDE THE TINDERBOX: South Lebanon - by Hanson Hosein, NBC News

for shorter MSNBC version, see Hizbullah Roots Run Deep in Southern Lebanon

MAY 9, 2003 SOUTHERN LEBANON

South Lebanon, by Hanson Hosein, May 5, 2003Washington thunders at Damascus, Beirut and Tehran: Hizbullah's time as a terrorist organization and militia has come to an end.  

Suddenly, with the fall of Baghdad, Colin Powell's “new strategic dynamic,” and the unveiling of a roadmap to peace, the eyes of the world now focus on the tinderbox that is south Lebanon.  

Amazingly, despite this pressure, all is quiet on the southern front - for now.  But there are a number of different forces and interests feverishly at work here, from the Hizbullah, to Palestinian refugees, to even an American-sponsored local branch of the YMCA.  

Right now, there's more diplomatic action than anything else.  This includes an imminent visit by the Iranian president Mohammed Khatami to Beirut, as well as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon's calls today on Syria to halt any arms deliveries to Hizbullah.  All this, ahead of Powell's return to the region this weekend for crucial peace talks.


HIZBULLAH IN CHARGE

Despite the token appearance of Lebanese army checkpoints, there's no doubt who's in charge in this part of the country.  Once you drive south of the ancient Phoenician town of Sidon, you are in Hizbullah territory.  Large portraits of Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, as well as Ayatollah Khomeini, its first Iranian benefactor, stare down benevolently from the entrance to nearly every town.

It's their presence here that's causing all the consternation in the world's capitals.  “The Party of God” was created in the early 1980's, with the sole intention to throw Israel out of Lebanon (Israel had invaded Lebanon in 1982 in an effort to get rid of Yassir Arafat and his marauding Palestinian Liberation Organization once and for all).  Hizbullah achieved its goal in June 2000 when Israel finally withdrew from the south.  

But the militia, as well as the Lebanese and Syrian governments say the withdrawal was incomplete.  They claim a small, mountainous piece of land along the Israeli border belongs to Lebanon.  And that their “war of resistance” for the Shebaa Farms will continue, which includes attacks against Israeli military positions along that country's northern border.  

Israel, the U.S. and even the United Nations say that patch of land is part of the Golan Heights, and will be returned to Syria once there's a peace deal with Damascus.  Many Mideast observers believe Hizbullah is just using the Shebaa farms as a convenient excuse to continue to apply pressure at the behest of its backers, Syria, and Iran, who have a vested interest in waging a proxy war against Israel.  And Israel is concerned that Hizbullah's increasingly destructive armory includes rockets capable of hitting major cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa.

“We have emphasized the importance of maintaining calm along the southern border in Lebanon,” Colin Powell recently declared in Beirut.  “It is time to believe the Lebanese Army should be deployed along the southern borders, and end armed Hizbullah's militia presence.”

Many people here will tell you the greatest challenge to this American demand is that Hizbullah has nowhere to withdraw to.  That this highly-trained, heavily armed militia is not an occupying army in southern Lebanon.  Rather they are people who live here, who believe they are waging a war of resistance on behalf of their neighbors and country.  

“I don't understand what moving Hizbullah from the border means,” Timur Goksel, the United Nations Forces in Lebanon's  (UNIFIL) senior advisor told the Lebanese English-language paper, The Daily Star.  “So they move back 300 meters from the border fence and then they are back in their villages.”


A SOCIAL FORCE

Hizbullah hospital in Nabatieh, May 5, 2003 HRHIn many ways, it's impossible to divorce Hizbullah from southern Lebanon.  The group serves as a powerful national political party, as well as a provider of social services.  It runs 50 medical centers in the south, as well as a number of schools.

“We have the same reputation for our hospitals as we do for our resistance,” said Ahmad Saad, the director of the Hizbullah hospital in the town of Nabatieh.  Saad proudly showed off the facility, replete with modern laboratory technology operated by women clad in white head-scarves.

Dr. Bilal Zeitun added that he could not conceive of a southern Lebanon without Hizbullah, and that American pressure could not force the group to disappear.

“Hizbullah is a part of the people.  You cannot disappear like that.  They are doing good for the people,” Zeitun said.

And the Lebanese government is happy to allow Hizbullah do its good works in the Shiite Muslim-dominant south, often cooperating and sharing resources with the organization.  At a Lebanese army checkpoint, MSNBC's Hizbullah escort gets out of the car and jokes with the soldiers, who then happily wave the vehicle through, on its way towards the border.

Senior American officials estimate Iran has given Hizbullah over a billion dollars since the group was born.  Though much of that money is spent on military hardware, a good portion (supplemented by donations from Muslims around the world, including America), also seems to be also going to Hizbullah's social programs.

The organization's Al-Mahdi school educates 1,700 students from kindergarten to grade 8.  By all appearances, it might resemble any private school in North America.  The children are dressed in uniforms, studying French, English, Arabic.  One art class is busy sketching a clay vase.  An empty computer lab houses twelve up-to-date computers, with 15-inch flat screen monitors and American-style keyboards.  “Your mind is like a paradise,” one English-language banner reads in the hallway, “It works best when it's open.”

“There is no Hizbullah indoctrination here,” said Mohammed Fahs, the school's principle.  “We only have an hour of religious instruction a week.”

It's social infrastructure like this that keeps the people of the south happy.  As one observer said of Hizbullah, “they know how to take care of their own.”

The Jihad Al-Bina'a is a key part of the organization's work here.  “The Holy Struggle for Development” in English, is Hizbullah's reconstruction arm.  It was established during Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

It's director, Hussein Khaireddine boasted that when Israel bombed five hundred Lebanese houses in 1993, “we fixed everything in six months.”

Now it builds hospitals, and schools like Al-Mahdi, as well as encourages agricultural development in the south drawing on the latest in farming technology.

“The Lebanese government is now here, working with us,” Khaireddine said.  “But it couldn't provide all the services we need by itself.”

In fact, a 1999 United Nations study of Jihad Al-Bina'a commended its “efficient delivery of quality services” despite the group's political motivation.  The report even posed the question whether this kind of work in south Lebanon would be as effective without its political and religious commitment.


A SOUTH WITHOUT HIZBULLAH

Paradoxically, many Lebanese officials argue that instead of instigating war, the disciplined Hizbullah actually keeps the peace along the border.  Although residents of northern Israeli towns and the Israeli army would beg to differ, there could be another threat looming in the south.  And that's the Palestinian refugees.

There are 375,000 Palestinians, who fled, or were forced from, their homes in 1948 when Israel was born.  It was Yasser Arafat's use of these refugee militias in the 1970's against Israel that instigated the Jewish state's invasion of Lebanon in the first place.  Many here argue the Lebanese army is still too weak to keep the Palestinians contained, and that Hizbullah's strength is the real regulator that keeps the pot from boiling over.  Indeed, Lebanon fears its refugee population, and refuses to accord them full citizenship rights, concerned they might disrupt the volatile ethnic and religious balance in this country.  The worst case scenario: interfering with Lebanon's delicate balance could spark another bloody civil war.

The Ein El-Helwe refugee camp, south of Sidon, houses the most Palestinian refugees in the country.  Around 75,000 people live within the camp's squalid three square kilometers.  They're now into their fourth generation of refugees here, and this camp continues to seethe with anger and frustration.

There've been a series of attacks here recently, linked to an armed power struggle between Yassir Arafat's Fatah group and other militant Palestinian factions.  This week, a hand grenade exploded in an empty vegetable market, and a Fatah official was shot twice.

The Lebanese Army checkpoint at the entrance to Ein El-Helwe does little to deter this violence.  Inside the camp, teenage boys patrol the alleyways with AK-47's.

Abed Makdah, the head of the group in charge of Ein El-Helwe refused to answer MSNBC.com's questions about the degree to which the camp was armed.  But he said his people were determined to return to their homes in what is now Israel, even if Washington's “Roadmap to Peace” ultimately discounts the Palestinian “Right to Return.”  (The Roadmap calls for a “just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue.”)

“I will never forget Palestine,” Makdah said.  “My grandchildren will not forget Palestine.  If doesn't matter if America or Israel says we can't go back.  We will fight all of our lives to go back.  We will never accept any other solution.”

One man, who refused to be identified, added that they could not trust the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to guarantee their right to return.  He said that the Roadmap to Peace was just an American ploy to buy time.

“In our hearts, we want to go back to Palestine,” he told MSNBC.com.  “But realistically, we know it will not happen.  A symbolic number of Palestinians will be allowed to return.  Most young people will emigrate to America and Europe.  The rest will remain in the Arab countries.”


THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

Now add to this potent mix in south Lebanon, the American government.  

In 1998, USAID began a rural development program in two hundred Lebanese villages.  The U.S. doesn't give money directly to the government in Beirut, because of concerns about corruption and mismanagement.  Instead, it partners American NGO's with Lebanese ones, like the YMCA.

This has created another, albeit, smaller, social force, other than Hizbullah, in south Lebanon.  The YMCA's “Rural Delights” program teaches women how to run a small, rural cooperative.  There are a number of farmers in the south that can't find a market for their olives and fruit.  So the YMCA came up with this idea for women to process this produce into all-natural jams and soaps.   Since the program began, it has generated $650,000 in sales in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Germany.  This week, the cooperative announced those sales would expand to $4 million in the next three years, and employ nearly 1400 women.

Incredibly, this is being accomplished in the heart of Hizbullah territory.  Rural Delights' coordinator, Abdul Hafiz Elladaki says the Shiite group was originally suspicious of the American-backed project.

“We explained it had nothing to do with politics,” Elladaki said.  “Now they respect it a lot.  We are welcome in the most extreme areas.”

He attributes part of the program's success to the lack of political message.  “We are coming to help them, we will not ask them to love America.”

Adiba Izzaddine runs one of the twelve cooperatives.  Most days you can find her in the basement of a house that was donated to her by the mayor of her village.  There, she and four other women package olive oil soaps, fig jam, and preserved bitter orange.

“We knew the money came from USAID,” Izzadine said.  She added the program changed her life, and helped change her perception of America  “We have nothing against the American people.  I have a cousin in Chicago.  We know there are good people there.”

Rural Delights with Mona and our fixer RachaMona Sokarayah went to a Hizbullah school, and later taught at one.  Now she trains women how to start their own cooperative during a 9-week YMCA course.

“It's really a revolution,” she said about Rural Delights.  “A revolution in our minds.  It makes women educated and independent.  At the same time, we have to be very careful.  We have to keep our own opinions about American policy.”

Most Lebanese often make this distinction between their respect and affection for the American people and their disdain for the Bush Administration.  Especially because the U.S. Government is now essentially calling for Hizbullah's extinction.
It sees Hizbullah as an obstacle to peace, with its ongoing war against Israel.  And it accuses the organization of perpetrating acts of terror against the United States, notably the 1983 suicide attack against the U.S. Embassy in West Beirut killed that 63 people, as well as the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that same year, which left 298 dead.

Hizbullah's death sentence is stated quite clearly in the “Roadmap to Peace:” “Arab states cut off public and private funding and all other forms of support for groups supporting and engaging in violence and terror.”

Which means Syria and Iran will have to suspend all support for its private guerilla army.  And as Vincent Battle, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon recently said, the Lebanese army must assert its sovereignty over that country's southern border.  Battle added in the French language-weekly “Magazine” that “the Lebanese Army is perfectly capable of handling the situation.”

No one can predict whether Hizbullah will go quietly if Washington has its way.  Nor what will happen to Lebanon once this delicate status quo disappears.  But some are able to draw a much much smaller, positive picture.  

Fifteen kilometers from the Israeli border, there are eight “Rural Delights” cooperatives busy producing jams, preserves, and soaps.  USAID's Rassan Jammous says the program is constantly looking for new export markets.  Should there ever be a lasting peace between Israel and the Arab world, Jammous says those co-ops will be ideally positioned to do business with Lebanon's long-time foe.

“Sales would increase,” Jammous said.  “It's my personal opinion, but I would be very optimistic.”

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America and Hizbullah
MSNBC.com version: Hezbollah rejects U.S. "roadmap"

Hanson Hosein, NBC News correspondent

BEIRUT: May 2, 2003

Hassan Nasrallah, May 5, 2003 south lebanonTo many Americans, especially those in government in Washington D.C., “Hizbullah” is synonymous with terrorism.  This weekend, Secretary of State Colin Powell hopes to find a way to pressure the group's host state, Lebanon, and its supporter, Syria, to do away with it once and for all, in the name of the U.S. “roadmap to peace.”  This is partly fuelled by the American view is that terrorists who are at war with Israel do nothing to further an agreement between Arab and Jew.  But the Jewish state notwithstanding, that's not how the militant Lebanon-based organization is seen in this part of the world.

Here in Beirut, Hizbullah holds the exalted status of a popular political party, and even holds twelve seats inside the raucous Lebanese parliament.  It's also an organization that provides much needed social assistance to the poor.

That said, it's the only militia group that didn't disarm after Lebanon's destructive civil war in the 1970's and 80's.  And it's no coincidence that the powerful Hizbullah keeps its offices well outside of the city's glitzy, Riviera-style rebuilt downtown.  It resides right next door to the Burg Al-Baragneh refugee camp, where nearly half of Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinian refugees live within a tiny, cramped area.  This is an organization of the “people” - even representing those who aren't accorded the rights of full Lebanese citizenship for fear they might disrupt the volatile ethnic and religious balance that could easily push this clannish country into war again.

And it's because of those Palestinian refugees that Hizbullah's second-in-command told MSNBC his group rejects the U.S. roadmap to peace.

“I rule out that the roadmap is an acceptable solution for the Palestinian people,” said Hussein Al-Khalil, Hizbullah's political officer.  He added he's not optimistic about Powell's visit to the region.  “The U.S. State Department - America's foreign policy - works on behalf of Israel.  It's not a State Department for the American people.”

There's no doubt Hizbullah poses a threat to Israel.  The militia is the dominant power in southern Lebanon, along the Israeli border.  Hizbullah, the “Party of God,”  was created in the early 1980's, ostensibly to throw Israel out of Lebanon. (Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in an effort to destroy Yassir Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organization once and for all).  It finally achieved its goal in June 2000 when Israel withdrew from the south.  But Hizbullah was not satisfied with that (and many Middle East observers believe they, and their ally Syria, were just looking for an excuse to keep the pressure on Israel until there is a comprehensive peace deal).  It continues to launch attacks from across the border, saying that the Shebaa Farms is on Lebanese territory and should have been included in the Israeli withdrawal.  Israel and the United States say the patch of land is in the Golan Heights, and will be returned to Syria once there's a peace deal with Damascus.

But it gives Hizbullah a reason to continue fighting.  And it gives Washington a need to do something about the organization.  It's not only because of the threat it poses to a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The Administration has a very real fear that Hizbollah might try and interfere with its Iraqi operation as well.  Senior U.S. officials say Iran has provided over a billion dollars in funding to Hizbullah so far.  And Syria facilitates transfer of money and arms to the group.  Both may have a  have a vested interest in keeping the United States military on edge in Iraq.

Still, Hizbullah says it has no designs on Iraq, despite its call to the United States to end its occupation immediately.

“The Americans are dreaming of Hizbullah everywhere,” Al-Khalil said.

Nabil Salmaan, a Syrian analyst, says his country may be uncomfortable with suddenly having a superpower for a neighbor, but it's unlikely to interfere inside Iraq.

“If the Syrians are really watching Iraq and thinking of ways for the American occupation to fail, all they have to do is sit and wait, and everything will crumble,” he said, referring to the great challenge the U.S. face in trying to stabilize Iraq.

The fundamental question is this: is Hizbullah a terrorist organization that threatens the United States?

On April 18, 1983, a suicide attack against the U.S. Embassy in West Beirut killed 63 people.  In October, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed, leaving 298 dead.  Nearly a year later, the U.S. Embassy's annex in East Beirut was also bombed.  America says Hizbullah orchestrated all those attacks.

Al-Khalil would not respond directly to those allegations.  Instead, he employed President George Bush's definition of terrorism to make his case.

“When did Hizbullah perpetrate aggression against civilians to gain a political goal?” he said.  “We have nothing to do with the American people.  We have no problem with them.  There's a big difference in the mentality between Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda.  Hizbullah has a cause, and a country, and we are defending our country and our nation.”

That said, as far as the Bush Administration is concerned, Hizbullah, for all of its popularity in the Arab world, is a clear and present obstacle to Israel, and to peace.  And Colin Powell is likely to demand that Syria stop supporting Hizbullah, and Lebanon assert its sovereignty over it southern border.  Saddam Hussein's Iraq provided an economic lifeline to both countries through significant trade.  With the Americans now in control, Syria and Lebanon are desperate to get their stalled economies going again.  Which may make them more amenable to American demands.

All of this could conceivably weaken Hizbullah's position here.  During the war in Iraq, it refrained from any cross-border attacks into Israel, possibly trying not to draw any attention to itself.  But there's a real sense here that Washington has now turned its gaze to southern Lebanon.   So how worried is the group that the United States will declare war on it, like it did on Bin Ladin's Al-Qaeda?

“We are cautious, and ready,” Al-Khalil said with a smile.  “But we're not concerned.”

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