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Iran Report: December 19, 2005

19 December 2005, Volume 8, Number 49

AHMADINEJAD'S ANTI-ISRAEL STATEMENTS REFLECT OFFICIAL LINE. Many explanations have been offered for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's numerous anti-Israeli statements in recent weeks. Although such speculation might be accurate, Ahmadinejad is by no means the first Iranian official to engage in Holocaust denial or to make statements denying the legitimacy of Israel. The visit of Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal to Tehran this week demonstrated once again that the Iranian leadership believes Israel is not a legitimate state.

Iranian commentators have suggested that Ahmadinejad's Israel-bashing reflects an effort at self-promotion or stems from his personal beliefs. There have also been suggestions that Ahmadinejad's views might signal an effort to connect with the least sophisticated constituencies in the country.

Denying The Holocaust

In a 14 December speech in the city of Zahedan in southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province, Ahmadinejad said that if the Holocaust took place in Europe and Europeans feel so guilty about it, then that is where Israel should be located, state television reported. "They have created a myth today and they call it the massacre of the Jews [the Holocaust]," he added. This speech comes on the heels of his comments on 8 December, when he said on the sidelines of an Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in Saudi Arabia, according to Al-Alam television, that "if the Europeans claim that the Zionists were suppressed during the Second World War, they can place a part of Europe at their disposal."

The international community has widely condemned Ahmadinejad's views, but they have been defended by Iranian government officials either directly or by inference. Parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel on 11 December defended French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, according to state television. "If hypothetically it is true that the Jews were oppressed in Germany, why should Islamic nations pay the price of the oppression which was committed in another continent by another country?" Haddad-Adel said.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended Garaudy's right to disseminate his views in a 12 May 2000 speech, according to state radio. "If a person is not affiliated to the capitalists and if one is not part of the capitalists power centers, he will not be able to speak, no one will hear his voice and he will be deprived of freedom of speech," Khamenei said.

"There are documents showing close collaboration of the Zionists with the Nazi Germany, and exaggerated numbers relating to the Jewish Holocaust were fabricated to solicit the sympathy of world public opinion, lay the ground for the occupation of Palestine, and to justify the atrocities of the Zionists," Khamenei said in a 24 April 2001 speech, state television and IRNA reported.

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in a 27 October 2000 sermon cited Garaudy as a source on alleged Israeli violations of UN resolutions, state radio reported.

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said on 16 December 1999, "Roger Garaudy was tried for carrying out a scientific research work," state radio reported. "They did so because his actions contradicted the interests of Zionism and exposed their lies."

The Hamas Line

This week, Hamas head Khalid Mash'al visited Tehran. Designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, Hamas advocates the destruction of Israel. "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it," the Hamas covenant of 18 August 1988 asserts. It goes on to say that jihad is the only solution to the Palestinian issue, and "initiatives, proposals, and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."

The covenant warns that after conquering Palestine "the Zionists" will expand to a region from the Nile to the Euphrates. "Their plan is embodied in the 'Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion,' and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying."

Mash'al met with Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and others during his stay in Tehran.

"Continuation of the resistance is the only way that guarantees the liberation of Palestine," Khamenei told Mash'al, state television reported on 13 December. His other comments resembled the views expressed in the Hamas covenant. "Compromise with the Zionist occupiers and negotiations with them will not improve the situation," Khamenei said. "On the contrary, any compromise will increase the pressure [on the Palestinian people]. We therefore conclude that victory will be achieved through resistance only."

"We will not be satisfied with anything less than the liberation of all the occupied territories, the return of all Palestinian refugees and the withdrawal of the occupiers," Mash'al replied. "And as Imam Khomeini said, Israel is a cancerous tumor, and we shall never put up with it."

Mash'al told Ahmadinejad on 12 December that Hamas appreciates Iran's stance against Israel generally and the president's "insistence on the illegitimate nature of Israel," IRNA reported. Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi told Mash'al that Palestine is the Iranian government's top foreign policy priority, the official "Iran" newspaper reported on 13 December.

Mash'al said on 15 December that Hamas will never recognize Israel and otherwise legitimize the actions of "Zionist occupiers," Mehr News Agency reported. Expressing gratitude for Iranian support, Mishaal said, "I thank the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and in particular the eminent leader and the president of Iran, for their statements." Although Iranian officials' statements upset the West, he said, "we" see them as "courageous and right." He continued: "Nations have always supported the Iranian people because the Islamic Iran expresses their sentiments, particularly when it comes down to the Palestinian issue."

Iran has defended Palestinians' rights and they will stand by Iran, he said, and Iran and Hamas will continue their "cooperation and interaction." The cease-fire with Israel will end and resistance will resume, he said, because that is the Palestinians' right. Resistance by Hamas will continue "until the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people are recognized, and the Israeli occupation is destroyed, because we want to take back Al-Quds and the Palestinian lands." (Bill Samii)

FRIDAY PRAYER LEADERS BACK PRESIDENT'S COMMENTS ON ISRAEL. Friday prayer leaders in Iran on 16 December endorsed the earlier statements of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad questioned the extent of the Holocaust in comments at an Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in Saudi Arabia on 8 December, and he reiterated these comments in the southeastern city of Zahedan on 14 December. He also advocated moving Israel to Europe, if the Europeans feel so guilty about the Holocaust.

Seyyed Yusef Tabatabainejad, the Friday Prayer leader in Isfahan, said in his 16 December sermon, "The president's statements in [Saudi] Arabia and Zahedan about Israel were true and the heartfelt words of all Muslims in the world," Fars News Agency reported. Tabatabainejad added, "By killing the hard-done-by people of Palestine, is Israel trying to remedy the misunderstanding of Jews burnt in incinerators?" The cleric endorsed Ahmadinejad's proposal that Israel should be relocated, saying, "The colonialist powers that support the Israeli government and human rights must allocate a part of their own land to Israel and vindicate the rights of Palestinians."

In Mashhad, Friday Prayer Leader Seyyed Ahmad Alamol-Hoda said, "The president's message to the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] summit meeting thwarted many conspiracies and draw the world's attention to Israel," Mehr News Agency reported. The cleric criticized Islamic states that intend to normalize relations with Israel. He added, "The state of Israel should be set up in Europe and it should not be in the heart of an Islamic country at the expense of the oppressed Palestinian people."

Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the Friday Prayer leader in Qom, said, "The words of President Ahmadinezhad at the [OIC] summit [in Saudi Arabia] were quite rational and they were the heartfelt words of the people of Iran," IRNA reported. Meshkini engaged in some Holocaust denial as well, saying, "After the Second World War, Jews and Zionists, in order to portray themselves as the oppressed people and bring about a favorable situation for themselves, wrongfully spread a rumor that over six million Jews were burnt in incinerators by Hitler, Germany and Austria." (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA REJECTS AHMADINEJAD'S REMARKS ON HOLOCAUST. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 15 December that Moscow rejects the recent remarks by President Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust, Reuters reported. "We consider attempts to revise generally known historical facts about the Second World War, including those facts connected with the Holocaust, as unacceptable," the statement said. It argued that "speculation on these topics runs counter to the charter of the United Nations and the views of the international community." Russia's position is that "Israel is a sovereign state with the right to live in peace and security side by side with her neighbors, including with the independent Palestinian state." The news agency pointed out that this language is similar to that of previous official Russian statements issued in response to Ahmadinejad's earlier anti-Israel speeches. In related news, the EU protested to Russia on 15 December about Moscow's $1 billion deal with Teheran to provide surface-to-air missiles and other military equipment. (Patrick Moore)

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER REFRAINS FROM COMMENTING ON AHMADINEJAD'S REMARKS. Vardan Oskanian declined on 15 December to comment on recent statements by the Iranian president questioning the historical validity of the Holocaust, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Mediamax reported. Foreign Minister Oskanian explained that Armenia has "always viewed our relations with Iran exclusively within the framework of our bilateral relations and do not comment on issues that go beyond this framework." (Richard Giragosian)

ISRAELI AMBASSADOR CALLS ON AZERBAIJAN TO DENOUNCE AHMADINEJAD. Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan Arthur Lenk called on the Azerbaijan government on 15 December to denounce the Iranian president, ANS-TV reported. The Israeli envoy demanded that Baku adopt a strong position against the Iranian leader's latest "anti-Israeli statements," which he termed "a threat to the international community." He further warned that Iran poses a threat not only to Israel, but to the entire region, because it has "started producing nuclear weapons," and stated that Iran's "threat to the international community" is a "threat that also hangs over Azerbaijan." (Richard Giragosian)

EU READY TO CONDEMN AHMADINEJAD'S HOLOCAUST DENIAL. Anonymous diplomats quoted by Reuters on 15 December said that the European Union is about to condemn recent comments by the Iranian president. Ahmadinejad recently has twice denied that the Holocaust took place, and in October he called for the eradication of Israel. A draft statement from EU foreign ministers said: "These comments are wholly unacceptable and have no place in civilized political debate." The statement also warns that the time to resolve questions about the Iranian nuclear program is coming to an end. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN REJECTS REPORTS OF AHMADINEJAD AURA COMMENTS. Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on 13 December that a CD that purports to show President Ahmadinejad saying he was surrounded by an aura when addressing the United Nations in September is a fake, ISNA reported (see "President Says Light Surrounded Him During UN Speech,", 29 November 2005). On the CD, Ahmadinejad seemingly tells Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi that nobody blinked during his 25-30 minute speech to the General Assembly. Elham said he was at the private meeting between Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi and no filming took place. "I believe it was a montage of the meeting and this matter must be investigated," Elham added. The spokesman went on to say that Ahmadinejad has a doctoral degree in a technological field and works 16-20 hours a day on government business. Ahmadinejad does not use "heavenly affairs" to make decisions, Elham said, adding that Mesbah-Yazdi is a religious expert and one cannot raise such issues with him. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW OIL MINISTER. Parliament approved Seyyed Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh as Iran's new oil minister on 11 December, with 172 votes for him, 53 against, and 34 abstentions, news agencies reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2005). Vaziri-Hamaneh has been the acting minister since the end of August, was deputy minister under former Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, and has spent more than 30 years in the sector, also serving as a director of the state-run National Iranian Oil Company, AFP reported on 11 December. Vaziri-Hamaneh set out some of his plans for the oil sector in parliament on 11 December, including continued exploration to maintain production levels, developing the processing and petrochemical sector to meet domestic demand for gasoline, upgrading pipelines, and encouraging efficient energy use, ISNA reported. Vaziri-Hamaneh attended an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in Kuwait on 12 December, news agencies reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

SOME LEGISLATORS WANT MINISTER SACKED FOR PLANE CRASH. A group of 48 legislators has signed a motion to interrogate Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar and perhaps sack him following a recent military plane crash that killed dozens (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 7, and 8 December 2005), ISNA reported on 11 December, quoting legislator Qodratullah Alikhani. Alikhani said legislators from all political factions signed the motion, which was handed to speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel. An unnamed parliamentary presidium member confirmed on 11 December that the motion has been received and is being examined for conformity with parliamentary regulations and to determine if Mohammad-Najjar is legally responsible in the accident, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 12 December. Mohammad-Najjar and senior military officers met with members of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on 11 December to answer questions. He told the daily "Farhang-i Ashti" that "there is no reason for my impeachment," reported on 12 December. He said the judiciary and the armed forces are investigating the crash. "[Military] transportation matters...are, in terms of hierarchy, governed by the air forces, and...our role is to back the armed forces," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

TEHRAN PREACHER, OFFICIALS APPOINTED. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami as one of Tehran's "temporary" prayer leaders, Mehr reported on 12 December, a move that allows him to preach some Fridays to a congregation of worshippers including state officials and parliamentarians. Khatami, apparently no relation of former president Mohammad Khatami, is a theologian in the Qom seminary in central Iran, and member of the presidium of the Assembly of Experts, which ostensibly supervises the supreme leader's performance. Ayatollah Khamenei is the permanent Tehran prayer leader, and other temporary "imams" -- or alternate preachers -- include Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, and Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

Separately, President Ahmadinejad reportedly appointed Ali Asghar Soltanieh as Iran's representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, replacing Muhammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Fars reported, quoting "an informed source." The appointment is not yet officially confirmed, it added. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has also appointed: Rasul Islami as head of the Foreign Ministry's Western Asia Department, and Mahmud Hasanalizadeh, its personnel security and screening department, Mehr reported on 12 December. (Vahid Sepehri)

MOTTAKI VISITS PAKISTAN. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki arrived in Islamabad on 14 December for a two-day visit, IRNA and PTV World reported. IRNA reported that Mottaki would meet with his counterpart, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, as well as President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. They are scheduled to discuss regional issues, including Afghanistan and the proposed construction of a natural gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. In his meeting with Aziz, PTV reported that Mottaki also expressed condolences for those affected by the earthquake in Pakistan and pledged continued assistance. Mottaki and Kasuri discussed the same issues as well as bilateral trade and Iranian interaction with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (Bill Samii)

NAVAL EXERCISES IN SOUTHEAST IRAN CONCLUDE. The six-day Devotees of Velayat naval exercises in the Sea of Oman concluded on 14 December, ISNA reported. President Ahmadinejad attended the final phase aboard the flagship "Kharg." Afterwards, Ahmadinejad said: "The armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran are the guarantor of security and peace in the region and their power poses no threat to any country." The exercises involved surface warfare units, submarines, and fixed and rotary wing aircraft from the conventional naval forces. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Basij, and the police also took part. (Bill Samii)

PREPARING FOR THE NEXT BIG VOTE. It might seem early to think about the next election in Iran, since the presidential race, which ended in the upset victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, took place just six months ago. Nonetheless, as early as July, political observers in Iran began discussing the next election -- for the Assembly of Experts, currently expected to take place in October 2006.

Some of the discussion focuses on how the country's political struggles will play out in the race. It also reflects the fact that this body of 86 clerics -- which meets just twice a year -- has the constitutional power to appoint and dismiss the Supreme Leader, the most powerful individual in the state. Major points of contention are who will decide which candidates are eligible and whether or not the election will be postponed.

Schools Of Thought

There are two prominent schools of thought on what the Assembly of Experts might do next -- both of which center on the belief that there is currently an intense rivalry for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's position. One school of thought has it that Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who is the deputy chairman of the assembly, and other top clerics want to replace the current system of Vilayat-i Faqih (leadership of the supreme jurisprudent) with a looser system of Visayat-i Fuqaha, which they interpret as general supervision over national affairs by a council of clerics.

This speculation, however, is based on unproven and questionable data centering on the supposed rivalry between Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khamenei. If such a rivalry really existed, then Khamenei would not have expanded the Expediency Council's powers in September to oversee other branches of government. The two men may disagree on some issues -- this is inevitable when two people have worked closely on controversial issues for roughly 40 years -- but there is very little substantive evidence that they are competitors. If anything, the two men depend on each other, and the current Islamic republic is a reflection of their joint efforts.

The second school of thought has it that ultra-conservatives want Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi to be the next supreme leader. Mesbah-Yazdi is the hard-line cleric that Ahmadinejad follows, and a number of Mesbah-Yazdi's former students at the Haqqani seminary currently hold cabinet positions.

Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi allegedly back a messianic interpretation of Islam, in which they hope that the 12th imam, known also as the Mahdi and who is in occultation, will return and restore justice to the world. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Ahmadinejad told a 16 November national conference of Friday prayer leaders that "our mission is paving the path for the glorious reappearance of Imam Mahdi."

The replacement of state officials by Ahmadinejad appointees, furthermore, has led to claims that the Hojjatieh Society, which was banished in 1983, is enjoying a revival. This society espouses similar views on the return of the Hidden Imam, and this would not be the first time that there are claims of a Hojjatieh comeback.

According to this school of thought, the new members of the assembly would engineer Mesbah-Yazdi's ascent to the leadership. The major flaw with this theory is that the Guardians Council's clerics, who are appointed by the supreme leader, are unlikely to allow the candidacy of individuals who will excessively upset the status quo.

Previous Assembly Elections

The last Assembly of Experts election took place in October 1998. Public participation that year was around 46 percent; it was approximately 37 percent in 1990, and approximately 77 percent in 1982.

Coming on the heels of reformist Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's 1997 presidential victory, there was speculation that similarly inclined individuals would do well in the 1998 race. There were even calls for the participation of non-clerics, and nine women tried to run. But the Guardians Council, which determines candidates' eligibility and supervises elections, changed the rules.

In the past, would-be candidates had to demonstrate ijtihad, the highest form of Islamic learning, which enables Koranic interpretation. But in 1998 all potential candidates had to demonstrate the proper political inclination as well. The council accepted fewer than half of the 396 applicants and none of the women. The council allowed a number of incumbent Assembly of Experts members to run again even though they failed to pass the ijtihad examination. The council argued that these people could do so because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had approved their credentials previously.

Revising Candidacy Standards When the Assembly of Experts held its semi-annual meeting in September, a handful of members reportedly submitted a motion to change the qualifications for membership. They supposedly wanted even more stringent academic qualifications, going from "relative ijtihad" to "absolute ijtihad," the hard-line "Siyasat-i Ruz" newspaper reported on 10 September. The former qualification permits one to interpret Islamic law, according to the daily, while the latter qualifies one to issue religious decrees (fatwa). The individuals who submitted this motion, furthermore, reportedly wanted the job of vetting candidates taken from the Guardians Council and given to seminarians. They argued that because some council members also compete for the assembly, the normal vetting procedure represents a conflict of interest.

Members of the assembly acknowledged in interviews that they had discussed the possibility of reassigning vetting responsibilities, the pro-reform "Sharq" daily reported on 12 September, citing Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The matter was referred to a committee that will make the final decision. Some assembly members also advocated the presence of non-clerics -- including women and military personnel -- in the assembly.

Another person calling for a change in the qualifications for assembly members was Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, the former speaker of parliament. He said there is an effort to limit the choice of candidates for the assembly, according to the pro-reform "Etemad" newspaper on 23 October, adding that this would reduce public participation in the election. Karrubi recommended letting the assembly's presidium have the final say on disqualified candidates. He added that the religious sources of emulation and prominent theologians -- "who have independent views and opinions and at the same time are affectionate toward the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini]" -- should be authorized to vet candidates' qualifications.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, secretary-general of the Solidarity Party, also said non-clerics should be allowed to run for assembly seats, reported on 25 November. Asgharzadeh, whose candidacy was rejected in 1998, said these are important elections and the reformists should take a stand.

Delay The Election?

At least one member of the Guardians Council has called for delaying the next Assembly of Experts election to coincide with the 2008 parliamentary elections, the reformist "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 23 July. "Sharq" reported on 27 November that calls for a postponement continue.

However, a delay seems unlikely at this point. The Iranian regime takes great pride in holding elections on a regular basis, and Tehran cites this practice as a sign of its democratic nature. The regime also holds up public participation in elections as a sign of popular support for the ruling system. (Bill Samii)

ISLAMIC SCHOLARS DEBATE SUICIDE BOMBING AND HOSTAGE-TAKING. In the current nomenclature, "martyrdom operations" is a euphemism for suicide bombings. In Iraq and Israel these incidents occasionally kill military personnel, but the majority of casualties tends to be civilians. In interviews with RFE/RL, two of Lebanon's leading Shi'ite clerics -- Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah and Afif Nabulsi -- and prominent Lebanese scholar Amal Saad-Ghorayeb discussed martyrdom operations, as well as the holding of hostages.

One of the first suicide bombings took place at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing 63 people. This was followed in October by bombings in Beirut of a French paratroopers' barracks and a U.S. Marines' barracks -- killing 58 and 241 people, respectively. Over the rest of the decade, suicide bombings became relatively commonplace, and many of them were attributed to Hizballah, the Lebanese political party that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Hostage-takings in Lebanon began in the early 1980s and continued for about 10 years, and most of these incidents were attributed to Shi'ite militants as well.

Of course, such incidents continue to this day. An 11 December suicide bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan, killed three civilians, and suicide bombings in Iraq take civilian lives virtually on a daily basis. Meanwhile, militants in Iraq claimed recently that they have killed an American electrician they were holding, and more recently an Egyptian translator was killed.

'State Of War'

Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah is Lebanon's leading Shi'a cleric, and he is seen by some scholars as the spiritual guide of Hizballah. The deputy secretary-general of Hizballah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, writes in his recent book on the organization that Fadlallah provided guidance in the early days. Some even wanted him to be Hizballah's first leader. Qassem writes that Fadlallah preferred to "remain a cleric," and in a 6 December interview with RFE/RL, Fadlallah denied having any formal relationship to Hizballah.

A critic of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda against the United States, Fadlallah offered a differentiated response regarding the issue of martyrdom operations. He was asked if there is a difference between martyrdom operations against Israeli troops who invaded southern Lebanon in the 1980s, similar operations that take place in Israel today, and the suicide bombings that occur in Iraq.

"Those operations by Al-Qaeda in Iraq are not justified because they kill innocent civilians without any circumstances that make this permissible," Fadlallah said. "There is no state of war between them. As for what happened in Lebanon when the Israelis invaded and what's happening now in Palestine in the Intifada, these operations have been in the framework of a state of war between the two parties. We know that both the Palestinians and the Lebanese had to face the huge power of the Israelis, and they had no other weapon. And everybody knows that what is allowed in war is not allowed outside war, and especially, when the war is against occupation."

In Iran there is an ongoing program to recruit volunteers for martyrdom operations in Iraq, and it is organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement. Fadlallah denied such an effort exists. "I believe it is a media campaign, and not a real one," he said. "There is a difference between the media world and real world."

Civilians And Soldiers

Lebanese American University professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is the author of a highly regarded book on Hizballah, and she follows Shi'ite politics in Lebanon closely. She explained Fadlallah's stance on martyrdom operations by saying that the Iraqi people are seen as "innocent."

"The Israeli people are not considered innocent," Saad-Ghorayeb continued. "So even if the targets are not Shi'ites in Iraq, and in fact even when they are Westerners, when Westerners are killed, this is considered.... Hizballah will not come out and say this is terrorism, but they will speak disparagingly of such attacks even when the victims are Westerners. This just goes to show that in the eyes of Hizballah, there is no such thing as an Israeli civilian."

Saad-Ghorayeb does not believe that Hizballah's position on martyrdom operations has changed over time, whereas its tactics have. "There is no perceived need for martyrdom attacks," she added. "Hizballah hasn't done that for years." Saad-Ghorayeb said Hizballah sees martyrdom operations as a temporary military tactic, but continues to support them in Israel. "There has been no change, whatsoever, ideologically speaking," she said.

Some Actions Are Justified

Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson was kidnapped in Beirut in March 1985 and released in December 1991. Other Western journalists were taken hostage in the 1980s, as were academics and clerics visiting Lebanon. Several hostages died while in captivity -- for example, UN observer William Higgins was hanged in July 1989. British and French hostages were killed as well.

Saad-Ghorayeb said that many Westerners in Beirut at the time were seen as spies. "These actions, first of all, like the Marine bombing, targeted American soldiers who were perceived as occupiers. Now regarding Western hostages even, Hizballah -- and I say this in my book -- Hizballah regards these people as having been American spies -- many of them at least -- working for intelligence services. And so the level of justification differs considerably."

Sheikh Afif Nabulsi, president of the Association of Jabal Amel Ulama, argues that there are circumstances in which taking hostages is permissible. He said in an 8 December interview with RFE/RL at the Sayyida Fatima al-Zahra mosque complex in Sidon that holding "spies" such as Elhanan Tennenbaum (an Israeli businessman and reservist kidnapped by Hizballah in October 2000 and released some three years later) is "acceptable." "We should take hostage the spies because they are sent to take the information from our country and send it to the Israeli people, and then the Israelis would come and demolish our country," Nabulsi said.

It is unacceptable to hold journalists, UN workers, or businesspeople, Nabulsi said. "The reporter's job is just to take the news, nothing else," he said. "The reporter must be very objective, he doesn't take sides, he just comes to take the news from the country." Nabulsi opposed aggressive actions against United Nations personnel who come to Lebanon.

Nabulsi also addressed the issue of martyrdom operations. He said there is a difference between ones that take place in Israel and those in Iraq. "If these operations happen in occupied regions, for example here, where the Israeli occupiers were, yes, we have the right to do that," he said. Nabulsi contrasted these incidents with the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and he condemned ones that occur in Iraqi mosques.

Things that happen in the occupied regions, he said, differ from those in other areas. "If you kill some of the British or the American army here or in Iraq, it could be [permissible], but we do not allow such things," he said. "We do not go there and kill them there. If they are occupying us here or in Iraq, we do such things." Nabulsi cited the Koran as saying two wrongs do not make a right.

No End In Sight

The carnage wrought by suicide attacks, particularly when the victims are civilians, is horrific. Therefore, Fadlallah and many other respected Islamic scholars were critical of the 11 September 2001 attacks by Al-Qaeda in the United States. Many analysts argue, however, that unless respected clerics speak out against suicide bombings per se, including such attacks in Israel -- and this seems very unlikely -- the carnage will continue.

Nor is it likely that hostage takings will end soon. They likewise seem to be an inevitable extension of the tactics being used against Israeli soldiers. In a 25 November speech at the Sayyid Al-Shuhada Compound in southern Beirut, the secretary general of Hizballah defended the practice. Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah said it is "not a crime" to kidnap Israeli soldiers, Al-Manar television reported. "Yes, it is our natural right to capture Israeli soldiers," he continued. "Can I be clearer? We have the right and even the duty to do this." (Bill Samii)

AL-QAEDA PROMOTION OF RELIGIOUS DIVISIONS ANGERS LEBANESE SHI'A. Western military personnel, contractors, aid workers, and journalists, as well as Iraqi security forces, were the traditional targets of Iraqi insurgents and Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. In mid-September, al-Zarqawi expanded the fight to the country's Shi'ite Muslim community, which makes up roughly 65 percent of the population. Al-Zarqawi's actions have had repercussions in another country with a sizable Shi'ite community, Lebanon. In exclusive interviews with RFE/RL, two leading Shi'ite clerics, Sheikh Afif Nabulsi and Sheikh Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, condemned al-Zarqawi and the terrorist attacks in Iraq.

A Call To Arms

On 14 September, the website posted an audio link to a statement from al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers (Tanzim al-Qa'ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn). The statement employed inflammatory historical references and used derogatory terminology. Battles come and go and time passes, but the goal -- "A Crusader, rejectionist [derogatory term for Shi'a] war against the Sunnis" -- does not change. The statement continued, "The interests of the Crusaders coincided with the whims of their hateful rejectionist brothers, leading to these crimes and these massacres against the Sunnis."

The statement claimed that in the battle for the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, coalition forces protected Shi'ite neighborhoods so they could "launch a war of total extermination against the Sunni neighborhoods in an attempt to obliterate all forms of life in these neighborhoods." Then, the statement continued, poison gas was used against the city's Sunnis. The Badr Corps militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was accused of torturing and killing Sunni men who escaped the shelling, and violating the honor and stealing the jewelry and ornaments of the Sunni women. "It is an organized sectarian war whose chapters were prepared with precision despite the existence of those whose sight God blinded and set a seal on their hearts."

"This is a special call to the Sunni tribes in Iraq in general.... rise up from your sleep, wake from your slumber.... The wheels of the war to annihilate the Sunni tribes have not and will not stop; they are coming your way, to your very doorsteps unless God permits otherwise. Unless you take the initiative and join the mujahedin to defend your religion and protect your honor, you will most certainly regret with sorrow...."

Al-Zarqawi's statement identified Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani as "the Jews' servants" and accused them of seeking the benefits of a "polytheistic constitution." The Iraqi government was equated with that of Ibn-al-Alqami, a Shi'ite minister who allegedly betrayed the caliph in 1258 when Hulugu attacked Baghdad, and the Shi'ite prime minister, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, was accused of declaring an "an all-out war against the Sunnis...under the pretexts of restoring the law and eliminating the terrorists." Al-Qaeda in Iraq, therefore, "has decided to declare an all-out war against the rejectionist Shi'a everywhere in Iraq, wherever they may be as a fitting recompense for them."

Five days after this statement was posted, another one from the same group appeared on a jihadist website ( This one said that Shi'a associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, and any others who condemned the attacks against Sunnis in Tal Afar, are exempt from the earlier threat of retaliation. The war against Iraq's two main Shi'ite political parties -- Al Da'wah al-Islamiyah and SCIRI -- and the other mainstream political organizations will continue.

Threats In Sidon

The impact of Al-Qaeda's anti-Shi'a action is being felt in Lebanon today. Sheikh Afif Nabulsi, president of the Association of Jabal Amel Ulama, received a threatening message from the Al-Mujahedin in the Sham Countries on 5 December. Leaflets delivered to the Sayyida Fatima Al-Zahra mosque complex in Sidon criticized Nabulsi for "declaring hostility to the mujahedin" and referred to him as an "atheist."

Nabulsi has a record as a proponent of Shi'a-Sunni accord, and these are not the first threats against Shi'ite clerics in southern Lebanon. Nabulsi said in an interview with RFE/RL in Sidon on 8 December that he is unafraid. Furthermore, the local representative of the Palestinian "resistance" reassured Nabulsi in a telephone call that his organization does not back such a hostile initiative.

Nabulsi also rejected al-Zarqawi's declaration of war. "If he called for a war against the Shi'a, the Shi'a do not call for a war against the Sunnis. They call for peace with the Sunnis. We will not accept anything that will cause war. It is not the first time this man talks about such things," he said.

Nabulsi said that such calls for war against the Shi'a have historical precedents, and there probably will be similar occurrences in the future. The Shi'a, however, will stay "strong and reasonable" and will not respond in kind. Nabulsi advocated open-mindedness and discussion in order to achieve agreement. Efforts to create divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are artificial, Nabulsi said, and the Shi'a will not respond to violence.

Asked about Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Nabulsi said, "only fools follow him."

Later in the interview, however, Nabulsi made it clear that the Shi'a will not turn the other cheek. He said that the hostage takers in Iraq who behead their captives are living in the dark ages and are "warriors against God and the Prophet [Muhammad]." We should reply to such acts in kind, Nabulsi continued. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a head for a head."

Condemnation In Beirut

One would find it much harder to threaten a cleric in Haret Hraik, the mostly Shi'ite suburb of southern Beirut. There are surveillance cameras on most of the streets. Moreover, troublemakers might be discouraged by the omnipresent posters of Shi'ite religious men. These include Lebanese clerics -- such as Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his predecessor, Abbas Musawi -- as well as Iranian ones -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, considered by many to be Lebanon's leading Shi'ite cleric, denies having a formal political role. Politics and religion are never far apart in the Shi'ite faith, however, and furthermore, the faithful frequently seek Fadlallah's views on a wide range of issues.

As a Shi'ite leader, Fadlallah is very critical of al-Zarqawi's actions. He said, "We are against what those people believe in, killing people because they are of different opinion is not Islamic in any way."

Fadlallah seemed particularly incensed by al-Zarqawi's promotion of Shi'a-Sunni divisions. "They feel that shedding the blood of Shi'ites around the world is lawful and the Shi'ites are not Muslims and they are unbelievers and the unbelievers should be killed. But not all Iraqi Sunnis agree with al-Zarqawi. That's why it is difficult to envisage a sectarian war in Iraq," he said.

Going Nowhere

It seems unlikely that the promotion of Sunni hostility to Shi'ite co-religionists will get much traction in Lebanon. In this country of some 3.8 million people, the Shi'a are a sizable group and play a significant political role. Moreover, two Shi'ite organizations -- Hizballah and Amal -- are viewed by many Lebanese as the "Islamic resistance" and credited by them with ending the Israeli occupation of the country's south. (Bill Samii)

LEBANESE WANT 'TRUTH,' BUT NOT ALL WELCOME MEHLIS REPORT. On 11 December, the independent investigator in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri submitted his final report to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The investigator, Detlev Mehlis from Germany, said on 12 December that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services coordinated the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others, and 19 Syrian and Lebanese officials are suspects.

In Lebanon it is difficult to forget about the assassination of Hariri. The scene of the bombing in Beirut is blocked off, but one can easily view its physical impact -- a huge crater and heavily damaged buildings. Throughout the city, furthermore, there are posters featuring Hariri and demanding "truth." One building, in fact, has a counter that displays the number of days since the assassination took place. While some Lebanese are eager for answers and eagerly anticipate the Mehlis report, others are concerned about its focus on Syria. Tehran, meanwhile, is emphatic in its support for Damascus.

Implicating Syria

An initial draft of the Mehlis report was released in October. It found that the assassination was several months in the making and that it was carried out by a group with "an extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities." It went on to describe evidence of Syrian and Lebanese involvement, noted the extensive presence in Lebanon of Syrian military intelligence, and added that former Lebanese security officials were Syrian appointees. Syrian and Lebanese intelligence reportedly infiltrated Lebanese institutions and society, the report added, and "it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."

At the end of October, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1636, which demanded Syrian cooperation in the investigation and the availability of Syrian security officials for questioning. Damascus agreed, on 25 November, that five Syrian officials would travel to Vienna to answer Mehlis's questions. They did so in December, but the report issued on 12 December refers to �reluctance and procrastination� by the Syrian authorities.

Seeking The Truth Amin Gemayel served as Lebanon's president from 1982-88, and he now heads the Al-Kataeb party, which is part of the governing coalition. An Al-Kataeb member, Pierre Gemayel, currently serves as industry minister. The former president stressed the importance of the Mehlis investigation in a 9 December interview with RFE/RL in Beirut.

"Discovering the truth concerning the death -- the assassination -- of Hariri is essential," Amin Gemayel said. "First of all, to consolidate the Lebanese consensus, and second, to normalize the relations with Syria. Truth is the base. You can't build a national consensus or normalize our relations with Syria based on the 'non-truth.' Non-truth leads nowhere -- to suspicion and fears."

One of the Al-Kataeb party's main objectives is "sovereignty," Gemayel explained. "For us, sovereignty means that no foreign forces on our soil without the real legal and constitutional acceptance by Lebanon through a very rigid process." Gemayel said it was through such processes that Lebanon accepted the presence of multinational forces in the 1980s or of UN observer missions later. "There was a very rigid and specific process to accept foreign forces, not like when the Syrians were there, or when the Pasdaran [Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps], the Iranians and so forth."

Shi'ite Parties Speak Out

Shi'ite political organizations in Lebanon have a fairly close relationship with Syria, and their representatives are critical of the international investigation into the Hariri assassination. Ali K. Hamdan, a member of Amal's political bureau, told RFE/RL on 8 December that it is important to get to the truth in Hariri's killing. However, Hamdan continued, the constant criticism of Syria undermines the 1989 Ta'if Accords, which he credited with ending the country's civil war and creating a more balanced distribution of power in a system that previously favored the Maronite Christian minority. (The accords also legitimized the deployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon.) "We must close this chapter," Hamdan said.

Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizballah, also believes that it is important to get to the truth in this case. Nasrallah said in a 28 October speech in southern Beirut that everybody wants the truth, Al-Manar television reported. Fearing that the case would become politicized, he continued, Hizballah advocated a Lebanese-Saudi investigative committee or one within the Arab League framework. "What we see today is using the Mehlis report as a pretext to punish Syria for a crime in which it has not yet been proven to be involved," Nasrallah said. "They want to punish it for its political and strategic options."

Nasrallah was even more emphatic in his defense of Syria in a 25 November speech, Al-Manar reported. "We have been, and will remain, friends to Syria; we are proud of this friendship. We have been friends to Syria since 1982.... We do not hide our friendship with Syria and we are not embarrassed by it."

Turning to the issue of Hariri's assassination, Nasrallah said all Lebanese should help the investigation. "This means that we should help Syria, too. We should help and not corner Syria." Nasrallah added, "We are the only Lebanese party that benefited from Syria for the sake of liberating Lebanon, and benefited from Iran for the sake of liberating Lebanon as well."

Support From Tehran

Great Britain, France, and the United States backed UN Resolution 1636, and it was unanimously adopted by the Security Council, thereby implying that the international community is behind it. But at least one country, Iran, has been unflagging in its support for Syria.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad telephoned his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad on 4 November and reassured him of Tehran's backing in the face of international pressure, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and SANA reported. Ahmadinejad and al-Assad discussed regional developments by telephone on 18 November as well, IRNA reported.

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki arrived in Damascus on 14 November, Iranian state television reported. "Vigilance, consultation, and cooperation between the regional countries will prevent the enemies of this region from implementing their ill intentions," Mottaki said when he arrived. "The Americans are following specific objectives in the region with the aim of bolstering the Zionist regime's interests." According to SANA, furthermore, Mottaki praised Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis investigation.

Hizballah's Hassan Nasrallah traveled to Damascus at this time to meet with Mottaki, "The Daily Star" reported on 16 November. An anonymous Hizballah official told the newspaper that this would be normal, and he added that Nasrallah's position is similar to Mottaki's. "Nasrallah has also echoed similar stances on almost every occasion," the unnamed official said. "Any meeting with Mottaki would be placed within this framework. This is not a secret."

Mottaki met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara on 19 November on the sidelines of a conference on Iraq in Cairo, IRNA reported the next day. They discussed the Mehlis report, and Mottaki emphasized their countries' unity against foreign pressure.

Where To Now? Mehlis has said that he will not continue with the investigation into Hariri's killing, although the investigation itself will continue for at least another six months. It is not known who will succeed the German investigator. There is little question, however, that most Lebanese want to know the truth. The massive rallies in February that turned into what has been dubbed the Cedar Revolution, as well as the recent rallies that followed the 12 December killing by a roadside bomb of Gibran Tueni, a Lebanese legislator and critic of Syrian involvement in his country's affairs, are proof that this case cannot be swept away. (Bill Samii)