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Party of God
Why Hezbollah Is Proving So Tough On the Battlefield
Group Weds Sophistication With Martyrdom Ethos; Armed by Iran and Syria
Donkeys and Drone Planes

As Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, its army left behind part of a strategic outpost known as Karqom. Concerned they might damage an ancient synagogue nearby, soldiers hesitated to level the outpost, as they did the rest of their military infrastructure.

When Israel's military returned to Karqom during the fighting in recent weeks, what was left of the outpost was gone. In its place was a fortified, 5,000-square-foot Hezbollah military base with a radio tower, secure satellite communications and a unit of more than a dozen guards. The Israelis ordered an airstrike, which detonated a huge cache of what they say were explosives and other weapons. The explosion, said a senior Israeli military official who was involved, "was like Independence Day in America."

Even the Israeli commanders who had watched the transformation of Karqom through spy equipment were surprised by the amount and variety of weapons stored there. It underscored the advances the onetime guerrilla militia had made to become the sort of potent military force usually associated with a national army.

A look at how Hezbollah has developed as a military and political force shows why Israel has been having a more difficult time than it expected in driving the group out of southern Lebanon. And it also shows how tough the road will be to permanently disarming Hezbollah and promoting long-term stability in Lebanon.

Yesterday, the Middle East war intensified as Hezbollah fired more than 200 rockets into Israel, some hitting as far south as the West Bank. Israeli troops, meanwhile, made their deepest penetration into Lebanon, snatching Hezbollah operatives stationed in the Bekaa Valley, near Syria. Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, also threatened to resume strikes in Beirut.

Born in Beirut's southern suburbs in the 1980s as an Islamist militia determined to drive Israel and its Western backers out of Lebanon, Hezbollah at first specialized in crude, though effective, suicide attacks and kidnappings. The organization held little territory and drew marginal political support from a Lebanese society split along myriad sectarian and political lines. But as the group's popularity has swelled in Lebanon's Shiite Muslim community and beyond, so has the sophistication of its weaponry and the lock-step discipline of its core fighting force aimed at Israel.

By wedding that sophistication to its ideology of martyrdom for the cause, Hezbollah's relatively tiny army -- believed to number several thousand -- has become one of the most effective military forces in the region. Hezbollah cells fire long-range rockets at Israelis from within cities densely populated with its supporters. The group has also had a consistent helping hand in accomplishing all this: Iran, an enemy of Israel and the U.S. that is competing for influence in the region.

Dug In

While its fighters remain guerrillas, in the south of Lebanon they are dug in like a conventional military, operating from an extensive network of reinforced underground bunkers and tunnels. The architect of its military infrastructure is Imad Mugniyah, a figure so secretive that the only known photograph of him is more than 20 years old and was taken before he is believed to have changed his appearance with plastic surgery. He is said to run Hezbollah's terrorist arm, the Islamic Jihad Organization, as a virtually autonomous unit.

Despite the group's increasing sophistication and firepower -- its supply of various rockets was estimated at about 13,000 before the war -- it maintains a highly improvisational bent. It has designed drone aircraft that have little tactical importance but have become an unnerving presence in Israeli skies. It is also said to move its missiles and weapons on donkeys trained to deliver their payloads to launch sites and storage facilities without a human guide. Israeli officials say the only way to knock out the threat would be to kill every donkey in the country.

Back in the early 1980s, Hezbollah's entrance into Lebanon's sectarian battlefield presented the U.S. and Israel with a military challenge neither had encountered before. Israel had fought traditional armies of largely secular Arab governments. Palestinian militants often resorted to kidnappings and hijackings in its war against Israel, but back then they never took their own lives in pursuit of strategic goals.

So when Hezbollah employed suicide bombers in devastating attacks on the American Embassy in Beirut in April 1983 and the U.S. Marine Corps barracks there seven months later, U.S. and Israeli military strategists faced a wholly new threat. "It was a chilling signal to us" of Hezbollah's capabilities, said a former Central Intelligence Agency official, who was based in Beirut at the time. "It showed a level of discipline and devotion we'd never seen before -- a real desire to die."

Many Lebanese officials attribute this to the role Tehran played in nurturing Hezbollah. Iran's then-supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, sanctioned so-called martyrdom operations, citing the suffering of early Shiite clerics. The Reagan administration pulled its forces from Lebanon as a result of the attacks, say former U.S. officials, emboldening Hezbollah and its main benefactor, Iran, to engage in a string of terrorist strikes against the U.S. and Israel in the ensuing years.

After Israel assassinated Hezbollah's top leader, Abbas al-Musawi, in February 1992, the group staged massive suicide attacks on Israeli offices in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994. And elements in Hezbollah have been accused of working with Iran to conduct the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, an American military housing complex in Saudi Arabia.

A 1989 agreement ending the Lebanese civil war called for all militias to disarm. But Hezbollah carved out an exception as the only force in the country proven capable of facing up to Israel, which still occupied the country's south.

Despite Iran's help, Hezbollah is credited with accomplishing much on its own. Timur Goksel, a former United Nations monitor in southern Lebanon, recalls Hezbollah militiamen experimenting with model airplanes outside a military encampment in the late 1990s. Only later did he realize the airplanes were the precursors of the military drones Hezbollah has flown over Israel in recent years. The noisy drones are one tool in Hezbollah's psychological war against Israel, though they are seen as having no real military applications. "They made them as noisy as possible," says Mr. Goksel. "This was a poor man's sonic boom."

After Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah announced Israel was still occupying a tiny parcel of land known as Shebaa Farms that it claims is part of Lebanon. (Though the United Nations certified the land as Syrian territory, Syria has never acknowledged its ownership, thereby allowing Hezbollah to claim Shebaa as Lebanese territory.) According to Hezbollah, that meant its military campaign to oust Israel was unfinished and it needed to retain its arms and special status in Lebanon as a resistance group.

By this time Hezbollah was popular among the area's Shiite majority, and not just for pushing Israel out. The group, whose name means Party of God, had become a pervasive social movement built on the twin pillars of religion and resistance to Israel and the West. The group delivered food to the poor, cared for orphaned children, provided heath-care services and brought a sense of meaning to a Shiite community long neglected by Lebanese society.

Hezbollah also embarked on a campaign to elevate its guerrillas to near-mythical status. On south Lebanon's dusty village streets and winding mountain roads, colorful -- and often ferocious -- Hezbollah posters sprang up by the thousands. Many featured photos of Hezbollah "martyrs" showered in rays of light.

With Israeli forces gone, Hezbollah quickly established control over the abandoned military facilities. Some, like the Al-Khiam detention center that Israel once helped operate, were converted into makeshift museums lauding Hezbollah's sacrifices and what it touted as its victory over Israel.

Other facilities retained a purely military purpose, such as Karqom, the fortified Hezbollah military base that Israel recently destroyed. Set about half a mile from Israel's border, Karqom was once the final buffer zone between Hezbollah and Israel proper. Under Hezbollah's control, it became the group's main operations base in the western sector of southern Lebanon -- and one of the launch pads for a far wider buildup, senior Israeli military and intelligence officials say.

That buildup included new training facilities in the Bekaa Valley area. Hezbollah fighters streamed through these bases, sometimes also traveling to Iran for additional training. In the training camps, they learned to fire more-advanced rockets and handle sophisticated explosive materials such as Semtex. They improved their ground fighting tactics, focusing intensely on ambushes and coordinated, multipronged attacks, Israeli officials say.

Aerial Cameras

Israeli military and security officials say they were able to keep abreast of some of the changes at Karqom and other Hezbollah strongholds via high-resolution aerial cameras. One thing that soon became clear about the buildup, they say, was the big role played by Iranian officials, particularly the country's elite Revolutionary Guards. Iran says it hasn't supplied Hezbollah with weapons or training.

Israeli officials say that monitoring with high-grade equipment from the air, they can identify Iranian officials and clerics by their expensive outfits and Toyota Land Cruisers, a contrast with the workaday attire and unremarkable cars of Hezbollah officials.

But the cameras couldn't record what was happening underground in southern Lebanon, Beirut and parts of the Bekaa Valley. There, Hezbollah's biggest plans for massive fortifications were unfolding -- the bunkers, tunnels and weapons storage facilities.

The man in charge of this building effort is Mr. Mugniyah, a longtime Hezbollah operative who at one point in the 1980s lived in Iran, according to Israeli, Lebanese and American intelligence officials. Today, Mr. Mugniyah, 44 years old, ranks near the top of the U.S. list of most-wanted terrorists and carries a $5 million bounty on his head. Israel has also targeted him for assassination.

Mr. Mugniyah has avoided capture thanks to a legendary penchant for secrecy -- including possible efforts to change his appearance. A Lebanese citizen who once served as a bodyguard for Yasser Arafat, Mr. Mugniyah also systematically erased all his personal records, including school-registration and other such documents, according to Lebanese and U.S. intelligence officials.

Senior Israeli military and intelligence officials say Mr. Mugniyah, who studied engineering at the American University of Beirut, worked with members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards to draw up the expansion plans for Hezbollah's armed wing. Along with an infusion of weapons, Iran also supplied engineering help, including designing tunnels and fortified underground operations rooms.

The extent of Hezbollah's underground construction is unknown. Last week, Israel's military discovered at least two extensive tunnels in southern Lebanon. Inside were large stores of weapons. Israeli security officials suspect there may be dozens if not hundreds more.

Most of Hezbollah's weaponry came from Syria and Iran, Israeli officials say, citing markings on some of the weapons they have discovered. As part of the buildup, Hezbollah took possession of sophisticated wire-guided antitank missiles, known as TOWs. Because that weapon can be fired from up to a mile away, it has forced Israel to be much more cautious in deploying its tanks on Hezbollah battlegrounds.

Another major component of Hezbollah's buildup was the arrival of the Zelzal, an Iranian-made missile that can travel up to 120 miles. Though Hezbollah has yet to fire the Zelzal at Israel, it has made clear that it now has the ability to strike Tel Aviv.

Explosives by the Ton

Perhaps the greatest shift for Hezbollah has been its increased use of Semtex, a material used to make roadside bombs, and other high-quality explosives. Once in limited supply, Semtex and other explosives have arrived by the ton in recent years, current and former Lebanese, Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials say.

That has allowed Hezbollah to turn parts of southern Lebanon into a patchwork of mines and booby-traps, including some that weigh as much as a ton. Last week, an 80-ton Israeli armored bulldozer was flipped over by such a mine.

As the international community pushes for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, the future role of the Islamist organization has become the central issue dictating Lebanon's future. The U.S. and Israel are demanding that Hezbollah be completely disarmed, while Beirut is demanding in return Israel's withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms.

Even if a cease-fire is reached, many Lebanese politicians and analysts question whether Hezbollah can be disarmed by force, especially by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's fragile government. The Lebanese army is more than 60% Shiite, and many of its senior commanders were trained in Syria and sympathize with Hezbollah.

Without a broad agreement, many Lebanese politicians fear that Hezbollah could remain the only armed militia within a Lebanese state that is increasingly weakened by Israel's offensive. Or it could push other sectarian groups to reconstitute the militias that fed Lebanon's civil war through the 1970s and 1980s.

"A cease-fire without an international force to defend the South is useless," says Walid Jumblatt, a leader of Lebanon's Druze community and a former militia commander. "It could lead other communities to have their own private militias."

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