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21 May 2009 08:51
Arab governments are starting to see the fingerprints of Lebanon’s Hezbollah all over the Middle East, adding to their growing alarm over Iran’s power and a widening Sunni-Shi’ite rift.
The worry comes at a time when Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militant group and political party backed by Iran, already is expected to make strong political gains inside Lebanon in June 7 elections.
The double whammy by Hezbollah—of growing political influence at home, coupled with more outreach abroad—has put the squeeze on traditional but waning Arab powers such as Egypt, already rattled by President Barack Obama’s outreach to their foe Iran.
“Hezbollah ..... [now] plays a role that is heavier, more important and influential than many Arab nations,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on the group.
Nowhere has the feud been as overt as between Hezbollah and Egypt, which recently accused the Lebanese Shi’ite group of organising a cell to carry out terror attacks inside Egypt.
Yemen’s president also has accused Hezbollah operatives of training Shi’ite rebels there, while Saudi Arabia has repeatedly warned of Iranian influence across the region.
Morocco unexpectedly cut ties with Iran earlier this year, accusing it of spreading Shi’ite influence in that mainly Sunni nation.
Hezbollah insists it has no intention of interfering in any country’s internal politics.
Even that—the first time Hezbollah has admitted arming the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza—was a startling, direct revelation of Hezbollah’s reach.
“We are not shy about providing the Palestinian people with the support they need,” said the Hezbollah leader’s point man on Arab affairs, Hassan Izzedine, in a recent interview. “But we don’t intervene, even if we are asked, when it is a problem between a regime and its people, or a regime and the opposition.”
However, Izzedine also suggested that Hezbollah hopes its record at fighting Israel would be a role model for Arabs. He also suggested Hezbollah would be ready to intervene to end any serious Sunni-Shi’ite rifts outside Lebanon. Nasrallah on Wednesday accused the United States and Israel of trying to create strife between Sunni Arab countries and Shi’ite Iran.
Shi’ite Hezbollah might normally have little appeal among the Sunni-dominated nations of the Arab Mideast. But Nasrallah’s popularity skyrocketed because of his guerrillas’ tough stand against Israel in a summer 2006 war in Lebanon.
Hezbollah wants “to make inroads into the wider Sunni Arab world,” said Ibrahim Bayram, an expert on Shi’ite affairs who writes for Beirut’s An-Nahar daily.
Hezbollah got its start, funded by Iran, by fighting the Israeli army after its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It now doubles as a political party with lawmakers in Parliament and a guerrilla army with rockets in Lebanon’s south to use against Israel.
Hezbollah has not hesitated to use its arms to push political aims: a year ago, it sent armed militants into the streets of Beirut to assert political power.
Outside Lebanon, Hezbollah is known to have operated clandestinely for years—including in Arab countries—to raise money, gather intelligence and seek weapons. In Iraq, it also is accused of training Shi’ite militiamen in conflict with Iraq’s central government, and of helping to plan a brazen 2007 attack on US troops.
But other than in Iraq, there had never been accusations of Hezbollah directly targeting an Arab country’s government, as Egypt has claimed. Generally, Arab governments have turned a blind eye to Hezbollah activities.
Hezbollah’s new prominence comes as the Sunni-Shi’ite rift has worsened considerably in the last few years. On one side are Sunni Arab allies of the US such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. On the other are Shi’ite Iran and its allies Syria, and Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas.
The pro-US camp’s fears have spiked recently, in part because of Obama’s efforts to open dialogue with Iran. US Arab allies worry that outreach will leave them in the lurch.
At the same time, Hezbollah’s power only seems to grow. In Lebanon, a coalition that includes Hezbollah holds a strong chance of winning upcoming parliamentary elections. And Britain is considering starting a dialogue, which would give the group a measure of international legitimacy.
The US calls Hezbollah a terror group but Britain and the rest of the European Union do not.
Regionally, Egypt’s arrest of the 47-member cell it claimed was organised by Hezbollah quickly turned into an ugly spat. Egypt’s state-run press blasted Nasrallah as a criminal and “fake sheik”.
President Hosni Mubarak warned Iran and Hezbollah not to interfere in Egypt’s “security and stability.”
Nasrallah replied by mocking Egypt as a fading power. “Did [the arrest] restore to Egypt its regional and international prestige?” he asked in one recent address. “Certainly not.”—Sapa-AP
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