Iran's Khomeini: inspiration to many S. Lebanese Shiites. Radicals vow to battle Israel; mainstream Amal prefers stability
Surrounded by Islamic tomes and posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Sheik Abdulmoneim Muhanna sits three miles from the nearest Israeli position and preaches the need for unremitting holy war until Israel is destroyed ``root and branch.'' Even if the Israelis withdraw fully from their nearby self-proclaimed ``security zone'' inside Lebanon, Sheik Muhanna says, the struggle must go on.
``Islam would not accept Israel's continuing presence in Palestine and the occupation of the Holy Land,'' he says. ``The holy warriors who are acting according to the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini are bound by his philosophy, which orders continuation of the holy war until the elimination of Israel, destroying the usurping Zionist entity to its roots, even if it takes 200 years.''
Through the window of the sheik's book-lined study in this impoverished Shiite village you can see a badly damaged four-story building next door. It is Muhanna's hauzeh or Islamic seminary. Until a few weeks ago, it housed about 60 Shiite student clerics from all over Lebanon. These students had come to imbibe teachings ``in the line of the imam [teacher], Ayatollah Khomeini,'' the sheik explains.
Iranian visitors were also frequent, his son adds. Some spoke a little Arabic, others brought interpreters.
But Muhanna laughs off Israel's accusations that Iranian officers and troops were involved in last month's attacks in the security zone on positions manned by the Israelis' local militia ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
``It's hard for Israel to admit defeat at the hands of the Lebanese and the Muslim holy warriors, so it resorts to a force bigger than either Lebanon or Israel and says, `Our defeat came from Iran,' '' he says.
The sheik describes his school as a ``cultural and religious center, far removed from military affairs.'' It was smashed by a salvo of rockets fired from nearby Israeli and SLA positions on Sept. 11. This was in retaliation for an attack by Shiite fighters on an SLA position. It was the first in a series of similar attacks which left perhaps a score of SLA men killed, and prompted the Israelis last week to mass hundreds of troops on the border in a demonstration of support for the SLA.
Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the ``Islamic Resistance,'' the umbrella name for Iranian-inspired radical groups such as the Hizbullah (``Party of God''). Their followers draw inspiration and encouragement from clerics like Muhanna, who hold out visions of paradise to those seeking martyrdom.
``The holy warrior offers himself on the road of Allah. He is joyful and happy because he is carrying out a duty placed on his shoulders, and is going to everlasting bliss and the sublime paradise of Allah,'' he tells them. Observers note the upsurge of attacks took place during the period of Ashura, when devout Shiites commemorate the martyrdom of their leader, Hussein, in a 7th century battle. Since the end of Ashura, the attacks have appeared to die down.
Though the strikes were by all accounts initiated by Islamic radicals, they seem to have at least the theoretical support of Lebanese Muslim and nationalist groups, including the mainstream Shiite Amal movement.
``All free and noble men must take part in operations to liberate the south,'' says Amal's senior organizer for south Lebanon, Mahmud Faqih. ``Even if they provoke a violent reaction, anyone wanting to carry out operations is welcome. There is no difference between the groups -- it could be Amal or Hizbullah, we all want to liberate our land.''
But in practice, Amal disapproves of attacks launched on the security zone from adjacent, heavily Shiite ``liberated areas,'' for fear of attracting violent reprisals promised by the Israelis. Many towns near the zone have been bombed following attacks on the SLA or Israelis. But because of the politics of the situation, observers say it is impossible for Amal to accept Israeli overtures of cooperation and coordination. In Muslim and nationalist eyes, that would be seen as collaboration with the Israelis and doing their work for them. Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin recently said Amal last year refused Israel's offer of a coordinated withdrawal.
In Nabatiyeh, a Shiite market town often cited as a likely target for reprisal action by Israel, an Amal fighter said, ``Hizbullah is forbidden here. It has no offices or official presence. It exists and is strong, but it works clandestinely. We know who they are.''
But in some instances there is no clear dividing line between Hizbullah and Amal. Some of the attacks are said to have involved local elements of both who are fighting on their home ground which is now occupied by the Israelis and the SLA. Amal organizer Faqih says a joint operations room has been set up to coordinate actions against the ``security zone.''
Amal keeps a close eye on the Palestinian refugee camps in the Tyre area to prevent Palestinian groups from attacking the Israelis. Its efforts to control operations by Lebanese political groups have brought harsh criticism from communist and other factions.
But senior officials of UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, fear that the longer the Israelis stay inside Lebanon, the harder it will be for Amal to maintain its moderation and restrain the radicals.
``We told the Israelis last year that their presence was an irritant which would provoke attacks against them,'' said one. ``Now we're concerned that their statements that Amal won't be able to control the situation should they pull out, may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.''