Hezbollah's Leader: War Turns Nasrallah Into a Cult Figure

By in Beirut, Lebanon

The military conflict in Lebanon has ended with a cease-fire. No proper peace treaty has been signed. Still, Hezbollah is celebrating the ceasefire as a victory over Israel. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has achieved cult status among the Middle East's Islamic radicals -- and he's become more dangerous than ever.

One of Hezbollah's public relations teams has attached a poster saluting non-Arab speakers by the highway leading to Beirut airport. It's not one of the usual improvised yellow-and-green posters or banners, the ones that show Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah smiling mildly. It's a perfectly normal ad -- large and properly paid for. The message is clear: The poster celebrates "the divine victory."

Similar images have been shown on Hezbollah's TV channel Al-Manar for the last two days. Computer-animated hands reach up from the rubble of southern Lebanon to make victory symbols. Then a band begins to play. Men dance among the devastated houses of southern Beirut. The lyrics are flowery and don't make much sense -- but the word "victory" is mentioned over and over.

Nasrallah -- the militia leader, the spiritual authority, the face of resistance -- is omnipresent. Freshly printed posters featuring his likeness and images of Katyusha rockets have been plastered up all over the country. As Lebanese soldiers preparing to patrol southern Lebanon assemble by the banks of the Litani River, entire caravans of buses draped with Hezbollah flags rush by. The windshields display pictures of Nasrallah, and loud battle songs -- Hezbollah's new victory hymns -- can be heard from inside.

Everything's prepared for the Hezbollah militants when they return to their hometowns -- the militia's PR teams have done an amazing job. Almost every bombed-out building sports a Hezbollah flag, and large banners hang across the streets to help villagers form an opinion of what happened during the last few weeks. The banners say the massive destruction isn't Hezbollah's fault, and that Hezbollah has won the war by giving its all to battle Lebanon's enemy.

"Made in the USA"

Others are to blame for the devastation, the Hezbollah propaganda insists. "Made in the USA" is an especially popular motto along the approaches to some heavily bombed villages. Posters hanging above mountains of rubble ask a rhetorical question: Is this what comes with the democracy everyone talks about in Israel? Other slogans celebrate "victory over the murderers" or simply "the Sheikh's victory." This is Hassan Nasrallah's sweet revenge.

It's tempting to see the post-ceasefire victory celebrations as propaganda. But Islamic radicals in the Middle East agree that this cease-fire marks a cesura in their history, even if it's temporary. Nasrallah ordered rockets to continue to be fired at Israel until the very end, and he still controls southern Lebanon. Israel didn't achieve its goal of destroying his militia. Even an internationally renowned magazine like The Economist featured the headline: "Nasrallah Wins The War."

The Israelis never got near Nasrallah himself, either. He managed to make public statements several times on TV, and observers expect him to make a staged appearance before throngs in a Lebanese street during the coming days. The Israelis can't kill him now that the cease-fire has started. So no matter what direction the peace process takes, Nasrallah is alive and will lead his militia. His place in history books -- somewhere between the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and Syrian President Bashar Assad -- is secure.

Avenging the Palestinians?

Respect for Nasrallah was also evident in speeches given by the presidents of Syria and Iran. Both praised his "struggle." The critics of Hezbollah's assaults on Israel, such as Jordan's King Abdullah, were silent. Abdullah as all too familiar with the mood in his country, where Nasrallah is suddenly being celebrated as the avenger of the Palestinians. It's not wise to criticize a new cult figure like Nasrallah -- who knows what might become of him?

Nasrallah's rise to glory is the climax of an unusual career. He was born in the slums of Beirut in 1960. His parents saved the little money they had so he could attend a private school, where he was known as a devout Muslim. When civil war broke out in 1975, Nasrallah was 15. He was quick to escape to Iraq, where he attended an Islamic seminary in Najaf. Not much later, he moved to Qom in Iran. He was considered charismatic there and attracted considerable attention.

Nasrallah, who is addressed as "Prime Minister Nasrallah" by his followers, is not a religious fanatic. He never moved far up in the clerical hierarchies of Islam because he wasn't all that interested in the Koran. His former schoolmates describe him as hard-working but not particularly talented. Nasrallah is, however, an experienced politician: He regularly visited Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri for tea before the latter was assassinated. It was always possible to reach an agreement with the Shiite leader, Hariri once said.

Nasrallah has been an important political factor in Lebanon for years now. He's even met United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, once, as the leader of Hezbollah. Timur Gocksel, who was for many years the leader of the UN forces stationed in southern Lebanon, describes Nasrallah as a pure pragmatist. "He was hungry for knowledge," Gocksel recalls. "He had always read the paper. Of course he was interested in Israel and military matters, but he read about many other things too."

A policy based on hatred for Israel

The struggle against Israel became Nasrallah's life work. He adopted the religious and ideological positions of the Iranian elite under Ayatollah Khomeini and the present Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, and he's long been seen as someone who represents Iran in Lebanon. Just after he took control of Hezbollah, the first Katyusha rockets began flying into Israel.

He likes to provoke: None of his speeches would be complete without a rant against Israel. His 18-year-old son died fighting the Israeli army in 1997. Nasrallah spent days negotiating the return of the corpse. But he also created a propaganda legend: Hadi hadn't been dead for 24 hours when his father turned up at a Hezbollah celebration. "We win honor for ourselves when we send our sons into battle," he cried out. "And we stand upright when they die."

At the peak of his power, the leader of the Shiite militia isn't likely to go soft anytime soon. He'll probably become more dangerous than ever, both in Lebanon and beyond. Whatever he says will be taken up by Islamic radicals. Whatever he writes will be read by hundreds of thousands of people. Without meaning to, Israel has created an enemy that may be larger than Hezbollah.

Israeli intelligence agents are already concerned that radical groups such as Hamas might learn the keys to success from Hezbollah. The very structure of the group -- half militia and half social movement -- worries Mossad members. Most of all, other groups could learn from Hezbollah how to avoid infiltration by intelligence agents and develop strict discipline.

The flowery speeches from politicians in Lebanon during the last few days give an idea of Nasrallah's importance. No matter which political party the speakers belong to, they all make an effort to please him, directly or indirectly. They're out to win his support -- or at least prevent him and Hezbollah from doing anything extreme for the time being. This means that his power is already greater than the two Hezbollah ministers in the Lebanese cabinet suggest. Nasrallah will be sure to use this influence.

Given this situation, the international community will have to consider how it deals with the sheikh. So far he hasn't shown any inclination to give up the weapons held by his troops or allow them to be disarmed. If such a measure were forced on him, he would no doubt start a new confrontation in southern Lebanon -- which means the man from the slums of Beirut has the leverage, even in a United Nations-sponsored peace.

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