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The sheikh behind Hizbullah

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But who is Nasrallah, a man the US named a "Specially Designated Terrorist" in 1995 for his vitriolic opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process?

And how has Nasrallah, backed by patrons Syria and Iran, created the most capable guerrilla force in the region? His black-turbaned visage, framed by wire-rimmed glasses, still festoons the rubble of Hizbullah strongholds in southern suburbs of Beirut and south Lebanon, where the destruction has, so far, boosted his popularity.

"The reason behind our strength these past years, is that we do more than we speak," Nasrallah told the Monitor in early 2000, during a rare interview in Beirut offices that last month were destroyed by Israeli planes. Flashing enigmatic smiles then, he was coy about whether attacks would continue.

"Keeping this issue unknown – which means there is a possibility for [cross-border attacks] to happen, or ... not – is strong for both Lebanon and Syria," Nasrallah said. "In the end, this is an extremely important card to play, and the Israelis know it."

Analysts say Nasrallah powerfully combines an eloquent speaking style with battlefield, political, and spiritual experience. He studied in Shiite centers in both Iraq and Iran, and his spiritual guide – and that of many Hizbullah members, but not all – is Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

With his movement shrouded in secrecy, protected by a tight ring of loyalists, Nasrallah has avoided the fate of his predecessor, who was assassinated with his family by Israeli helicopter gunships in 1992.

"Nasrallah was one of the earliest Hizbullah members, when they were a band of 50 or 100 ragtag, young, unshaven guerrilla guys in the Bekaa Valley, supported by arguably hundreds – perhaps as many as 1,000 – Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982," says Nicholas Noe, a scholar of Hizbullah and editor of the Beirut-based Mideasetwire.com. "He's an original guy."

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