Monday, July 24, 2006

Background: Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri

These two names can easily become household words. It's time to start learning about them.

One, Hassan Nasrallah, is the sparkplug of Hezbollah. He is 22 years younger than the other. The other, Nabih Berri is Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament and host today to Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. Both came from the Shiite community now showering Israel with rockets.

It was during this time [1989-2000] that Hasan Nasrallah emerged as one of Iran's favorites in Lebanon. He traveled to Iran in September 1989 to meet with Rafsanjani and worked as Hizbullah's "ambassador" to Tehran. In 1991, his mentor Abbas al-Musawi became secretary-general of Hizbullah but his tenure was brief because he was ambushed and killed by the Israelis in February 1992. The Iranian command, headed by President Rafsanjani and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, nominated the young Nasrallah, then 31, to succeed Musawi. Within the party's hierarchy, the second-in-command was Sheikh Naiim Qasim, a dedicated nationalist who nevertheless lacked Nasrallah's charm and charisma. The support of Khamenei and Rafsanjani secured the job for Nasrallah, and Qasim remained his deputy, a post he holds until today, 14-years later. The ascent of the young Nasrallah was surprising to a majority of veteran leaders in the Shiite community, notably Nabih Berri (by now speaker of the Lebanese Parliament). Only 31 years old, Nasrallah was many years younger than most clerics, regarded politically and religiously inexperienced. He was 22 years younger than Berri. He had spent only two years studying Islam in Najaf, for example, while Musawi had spent nine.

The young leader of Hizbullah started his new career by promising to avenge Musawi's blood. He lived up to his word and on March 17, 1992, a car bomb went off at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. Nasrallah had sent off a clear message to the world: Hizbullah was a key player in Lebanon that could not be dismissed or eliminated. Musawi's death will be avenged -- but it does not mean that Hizbullah will disappear from after him. In May 1994, Israeli commandos penetrated into Lebanon and captured Mustapha al-Dirani, a pro-Hizbullah member of Amal. An infuriated Hizbullah responded in July 1994 with a suicide bomber blowing himself up at the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people. Hizbullah denied involvement, however, to avoid international pressure to limit its casualties to the battlefield, but everybody knew that Nasrallah was behind the bombing, in retaliation for the capturing of Dirani. For the next 10 years, Nasrallah insisted on mentioning Dirani in every single one of his speeches, telling his audiences: "We do not forget our captured fighters!" Every single time he spoke he hailed Dirani's steadfastness in jail, and promised to have him released. Again, Nasrallah proved true to his word when he conducted a massive prisoner exchange with Israel in January 2004 and among the released Lebanese prisoners was Mustapha al-Dirani.

In July 1993, Israel carried out a massive offensive against Hizbullah, which lasted for an entire week. Nasrallah responded by showering Israel with 142 Katyusha rockets. In April 1996, war broke out again, for 16 days, and Hizbullah responded with 489 Katyusha rockets. In September 1997, Nasrallah's 18-year-old son Hadi was killed in combat, and Nasrallah received news of his death while giving a televised speech with great calm—an act that earned him widespread respect in the Muslim World. The Cairo-based al-Ahram reported on the incident saying:

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah entered the hall in solemn dignity accompanied by Jawad, his teenage son. He stopped before each coffin and offered the Fatiha [the Muslim equivalent of the Lord's Prayer] until he reached the one marked 13. He beckoned an aide and spoke to him in a whisper. The aide summoned two workers of the Islamic Health Association, a Hizbullah outfit. They opened the coffin, exposing a body wrapped in a white shroud. Sheikh Nasrallah's eyes closed, his lips trembled as he offered the Fatiha. Slowly, he bent over and tenderly stroked the head of Hadi Nasrallah, his eldest son, who was 18 years old when he died in battle on September 13 [1997]. Jawad, the younger son, stood still and pale next to his father. A deep silence fell on the room while his right hand rested on his son's chest. It was broken by the clicking of a reporter's camera, but promptly returned when Sheikh Nasrallah looked up in cold surprise.

From World Politics Watch, a daily Web publication about foreign policy, national security and international affairs. More at the link.

CFR has a lot of background information as well.

The government is deeply divided, reflecting the country's fractious population. Many of Lebanon's leaders—including the president and the speaker of parliament—are seen as puppets of Damascus, and the parliament is split between an anti-Syria coalition and a pro-Syria alliance. After a national dialogue between political leaders failed in the spring, the country's leadership just stopped working, says Joshua M. Landis, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on the region. The failure of the national dialogue "froze this terrible split in Lebanese politics and made sure [the government] was divided and weak," he says....
Under a system dating to the end of French colonial rule in 1943, the country's top leadership posts are set aside for certain religious groups: the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament must be a Shiite Muslim. These provisions are especially problematic now, experts say. "You've got this wounded president, he can scuttle a few things, but he can't really act," Landis says. "And that's a problem, because he's the commander-in-chief."
The 128 members of parliament are elected to four-year terms. In last year's parliamentary elections, the first since the Syrian withdrawal, seats in the parliament were divided between three main parties:

Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Tide) coalition, seventy-two seats. ...

Amal Party/Hezbollah, thirty-five seats. Hezbollah, the armed Shiite militia backed by Iran, has wide political support in Lebanon's Shiite south, where it is credited with ending the Israeli occupation. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, formed a coalition with the Amal Party, a Shiite group led by Nabih Berri, a former military officer considered one of Syria's main collaborators in Lebanon. The Amal/Hezbollah group is now the main Shiite party in Lebanon.

Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), twenty-one seats. ...

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