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The sheikh behind Hizbullah

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has made Hizbullah a potent military and political force.

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Even Israel's most legendary military general – a veteran of every war of Israel but this current one – is believed to have found Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah a worthy enemy.

Such grudging respect is no surprise to Lebanese. They have watched Nasrallah transform the Shiite militia into the only Arab force credited in the Arab world with defeating Israel on the battlefield – forcing the end of an 18-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 – and a potent political force.

But they have also seen the charismatic cleric spark the latest war in Lebanon. And while exacting a heavy toll on the Jewish state and its long-fostered aura of invincibility, Hizbullah also prompted a massive Israeli bombardment that has cost 10 times as many Lebanese lives as Israeli ones, and ravaged the country.

Calm and in control, with steady eyes and a hint of heavy burden, the thickly bearded sheikh has told rapt Lebanese that Israel could stop Hizbullah rockets, if Israel stopped killing civilians.

Nasrallah mocked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his lack of military experience, in his latest television statement last Thursday, saying the Israeli leader was "an incompetent moron," who did not measure up to Mr. Sharon – whose autobiography Nasrallah has read – or other Israeli leaders before him, except in "committing massacres."

"You are looking at a person who can be classified [in the Islamic world] as a hero, or an Arab Khomeini," says Nizar Hamzeh, a Hizbullah expert at the American University of Kuwait, referring to the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

"The Sunni and Shiite street agree on one thing: After 50 years of Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, Nasrallah was able to change this," says Mr. Hamzeh, who has studied the group for years. "Hizbullah is the model for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hizbullah, backed by allies like Iran, has perfected this kind of guerrilla warfare."

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