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The sheikh behind Hizbullah

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Back then Hizbullah was an umbrella for a host of militant groups. Elements bombed US and French troops in Beirut in 1983, later blew up the US Embassy, and kidnapped a number of Western hostages.

The US considers Hizbullah a terrorist group, and officials in 1999 highlighted this Nasrallah comment shortly after the signing of the Wye accords: "I call on any Palestinian who has a knife, a hand grenade, a gun, a machine gun or a small bomb to go out during these few weeks and kill the Israelis and the Accord."

But the European Union does not consider Hizbullah a terrorist organization, now that the party holds 14 seats in parliament and two ministerial portfolios in the Lebanese government. UN chief Kofi Annan even met with Nasrallah in 2000.

Adding to his guerrilla credentials, Nasrallah is reported to have been wounded during fighting against Israeli troops in the 1980s. But it was the 1997 death of his own son, Hadi, while fighting in southern Lebanon, that did most. "That was the first event that catapulted Nasrallah's personality into the hearts and minds of so many Lebanese, including Christians and Sunnis, many of whom cried when he refused to negotiate with the Israelis to get his son's body back," says Mr. Noe, speaking from Kuwait City. "That brought half the country to tears."

But more tears have come, in the wake of Hizbullah's cross-border raid on July 12, which netted two Israeli soldiers. The aim was to trade them for three Lebanese prisoners – a decades-long practice in the Mideast, which Israel and Hizbullah had conducted as recently as 2004 – but it came just two weeks after Hamas militants abducted an Israeli soldier.

Hizbullah officials have admitted surprise at the ferocity of the Israeli response.

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