Hizballah’s Spiritual Fathers Gravitate to Iraq

Call it a small victory for pragmatism or a piece of historic irony.

Sayed Moh’d Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual progenitor of the fanatical Shiite suicide bombers who murdered 241 US Marines in their Beirut base in 1983, is determined thirty years later to jump aboard the historical process instigated in Iraq by his old enemy, the United States.

On Monday, September 15, the Lebanese cleric presented himself at Bashar Assad’s Radwa palace in Damascus to request permission to relocate to the Iraqi Shiite holy town of Najaf, together with a party of his supporters from Beirut’s “hawza” religious seminaries.

The Lebanese cleric, once branded “The Terrorists’ Ayatollah” and partner of the Lebanese arch-terrorist and abductor Imad Mughniyeh, is now willing to play by the new Middle East rules laid down by Washington. Fadlallah still enjoys more power and influence in the region than Assad could ever hope for. But he has mellowed and – unlike Yasser Arafat – knows when to bend.

While blasting the US conquest of Iraq, he knows perfectly well that the US presence is an accomplished fact and that dialogue and cooperation with the Americans are necessary evils for shoring up Iraq’s internal security and reconstruction.

The heads of the important Shiite seminaries in Lebanon, especially those under Fadlallah’s direction, want to follow him to Najaf or Karbala, Iraq’s second Shiite holy city. They comprehend that Iraqi Shiites must interact with Washington as an integral feature in the war against terrorism and the overarching relationship between the United States and Islam. They have no wish to be left behind, marooned in the Lebanese backwater with the Hizballah chief sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. So Lebanon’s Shiite clerics are striking out boldly and heading for a new future, thereby leaving Nasrallah and Assad’s Syria bereft of their traditional religious patronage and about to lose their special standing in the Shiite world.

Nasrallah was worried enough to seek his own channel of dialog with Washington.

The same week that Fadlallah called on Assad, Hizballah did something it had never done in its 25-year history. The group invited US delegates with known intelligence links to a symposium on the Middle East situation.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Beirut, the American invitees conditioned their acceptance on being allowed to speak freely and openly. Nasrallah gave the nod. The result was that senior Hizballah officers, including the group’s security and terrorist chiefs, were exposed for the first time to American positions on regional developments.

Nasrallah later buttonholed the Americans, including a senior US official, for lengthy private conversations.

This rare event was all the more surprising in that it brought US officials into contact with the chief of a group designated by Washington as part of al Qaeda’s a global terrorist network. In southern Lebanon, Hizballah harbors 150 of bin Laden’s fighting men as well as Mughniyeh, the Shiite-Iranian terrorist held by Washington to have been complicit in plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Fadlallah meanwhile received Assad’s permission to move to Najaf.

But US civilian administrators in Baghdad accused the Syrian ruler of taking liberties.

“Who is Assad to think he can determine who moves to Najaf,” huffed a senior US source in Baghdad who deals with Shiite affairs. “Doesn’t he see what’s going on militarily on the Iraqi-Syrian border and what happened in Washington this week?”

The source was referring to operations by the US 101st airborne division, which we reported in our last issue, and the unfavorable comments on Syria made by John Bolton, US undersecretary for arms control and international security, in his testimony to Congress. In addition, White House spokesman Scott McClellan publicly warned Syria it would bear responsibility for the actions of terrorists crossing its border into Iraq to kill US soldiers.

US officials fashion new Beirut leadership

In Beirut, meanwhile, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the United States has instituted a process to refashion the Lebanese government. The bright star on Washington’s Lebanon’s horizon is hardly a newcomer. Yet Michel Aoun’s name rings few bells in or outside the region. This former general is barely remembered as president and interim prime minister of Lebanon on the eve of the first Gulf War in 1991.

At the time, the late Syrian president, Hafez Assad, suspecting the Maronite Christian Aoun of pro-American proclivities, put him on a Syrian military plane that flew him to exile in France. He has been living quietly in a grand country house south of Paris for the past 12 years.

Aoun never lost touch with friends in Washington and visited them often. But it was only last week that he was finally invited for his first meetings in years with officials of the state department, the national security council and the Pentagon.

Summoned to address a congressional subcommittee on Middle East Affairs, Aoun said Syria had turned Lebanon into “a slave toiling in the service of a dictatorship”.

Aoun won his ticket to Washington by proving he still has political clout in Lebanon. Hikmat Deeb, Aoun’s candidate in a by-election held on September 14 in Baabda-Aley in central Lebanon, put up a strong showing against Henri Helou, who was backed by Syrian military intelligence in Beirut, the Druze and Hizballah.

The pro-Syrian Helou received 28,000 votes to 25,000 for Deeb, with a turnout of only 20 percent.

This decided Washington to throw its support behind Aoun for a comeback in Beirut as the leading Christian ally of the pro-American Muslim prime minister Rafik Hariri. This support will also extend to helping Aoun restore the political power of Lebanon’s Christian Maronite minority.

US government strategists are counting on a Hariri-Aoun alliance to help Lebanon finally slough off Syrian domination and empower the Lebanese Army to start disarming the Hizballah in the south.

Possibly emboldened by the approaching Aoun comeback, Lebanese troops on September 21 fired at armed Hizballah men in the village of Jbaa in southern Lebanon, killing one and wounding three others. The incident began when the Hizballah tried to stop members of the rival Shiite Amal from hanging political posters in the local mosque.

Lebanon’s central bank may also be feeling the wind of change. It issued a directive to commercial banks to cough up details of the accounts and dealings of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

The fresh currents in Beirut may explain why Assad stepped back from a government reshuffle that would have presaged reforms. Thursday, September 18, the Syrian president was still expected to instruct the new prime minister, Mohammed Naji Otri, to appoint young, liberal pro-American ministers to his cabinet lineup. But when the roster was announced, it was found to have retained anti-American old guard ministers in the two key posts: defense minister Mustafa Tlas and foreign minister Farouk a-Shara.

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