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Interview With As'ad AbuKhalil

Aired May 14, 2003 - 20:32   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Ever since the 9/11 attacks the U.S. war on terror has focused primarily and understandably on al Qaeda. Well, now there are signs of an increasing interest in another Middle East-based group, Hezbollah. U.S. officials are pressuring Syria and Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah.
CNN international correspondent Sheila MacVicar has more.


SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the United States prepared to go to war against Iraq, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, they were chanting, "Death to America." At the time, these words from the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, directed at the U.S.

"The people of this region," he says, "will welcome you with guns, arms, and blood" -- those ominous words from a man the U.S. says is a terrorist.

RICHARD ARMITAGE, UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe al Qaeda's actually the B-team. And they're on the list and their time will come.

MACVICAR: In Lebanon, Hezbollah, its leadership, and its fighters are considered freedom fighters. Their yellow flags with raised fists and AK-47s still fly all over southern Lebanon, some of them right at the border with Israel. Nearly three years ago, Hezbollah fighters forced the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers occupying south Lebanon and won a place in the hearts of the Lebanese. The battle with Israel continues.

WALID JUMBLATT, LEBANESE PARLIAMENT: We are entitled to help the resistance movements, Palestinians and Hezbollah, against Israel. This is a legal claim, legal right. These are not terrorists.


MACVICAR (on camera): Yes.

GANTZ: You see the building.


GANTZ: And another antenna and a small flag. MACVICAR: Yes.

GANTZ: That's Hezbollah already.

MACVICAR (voice-over): Israeli Major General Benny Gantz was the last soldier out of Lebanon when the Israelis pull out. Now he watches Hezbollah from Israel.

GANTZ: Well, it poses risk for Israel. And it can harm us. It can use its terrorist activities mainly along the border.

MACVICAR: The U.N. says that Israel has fully withdrawn from Lebanese territory, the Lebanese and Hezbollah disagree, and sporadic fighting continues over a few acres called Shebaa Farms.

Now, Israel claims there is a much bigger risk: Hezbollah missiles, they say, that could reach Israeli cities whether there is war in Iraq or not. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Sheik Nasrallah would not say if Hezbollah possesses such missiles.

SHEIK HASSAN NASRALLAH, HEZBOLLAH SECRETARY-GENERAL (through translator): We believe that it is our right to possess any weapon to defend our country. Lebanon is caught in a cycle of threats. And it is our duty to be strong and capable of defending our country. We do not explain or clarify what we do or do not possess.

MACVICAR: As the world watches Iraq, people here on both sides of the border worry about the plans of the other. Will Israel attack Hezbollah and Lebanon or will Hezbollah act against Israel? And in the aftermath of war with Iraq, what are Hezbollah's intentions towards America and Americans?

Sheila MacVicar, CNN, southern Lebanon.


COOPER: Well, the question is: How big a threat does Hezbollah represent to the United States? And if so, how big is that threat, how serious, how immediate?

Joining us from Modesto, California, is As'ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at the California State University at Stanislaus.

Professor, thanks for being with us.


COOPER: You heard U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage calling Hezbollah possibly the A-team of international terrorists. How well organized are they and how international is their reach?

ABUKHALIL: Well, it's an extremely organized party. And I worry that we may inevitably or willingly make them an enemy of the United States. I did an interview with (CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You're saying they're not an enemy of the United States already?

ABUKHALIL: Well, may I continue with my answer?

Well, I personally believe -- and my impression when I interviewed the leader of the party for my research last summer -- and I asked them specifically about their view of the United States. And they believe that they do not wish to take the fight against the United States. They argue that they are against the Israelis. And, of course, for Israel, any political party or faction that is opposed to Israeli occupation, they automatically terrorists.

COOPER: Well, let me jump in here.


COOPER: You've said your answer. Let me understand something. And the leader may have said one thing to you in an interview, just as, actually, I talked to Sheila MacVicar, the correspondent, and he said one thing to her.

ABUKHALIL: Of course.

COOPER: But, I mean, the fact is, pre-9/11, Hezbollah has killed more Americans than any other terrorist group prior to 9/11. So to say that they're not a threat to the United States seems difficult to believe.


ABUKHALIL: I mean, first of all, I did not say that. You're answering your own answers, in fact.

Let me say this. I believe that the Party of God -- there are attacks in Lebanon in the early 1980s against Americans, civilians, and innocent Lebanese. And I asked the leader of the Party of God about those attacks. And they argue, whether it's genuine or disingenuous, that the people who did those attacks are not necessarily part of the structure of the Party of God.

Now, the Party of God has its own ideology, which is an Islamic fundamentalist ideology. And all those who are secularist like myself, feminists, do not like that ideology. But the party is focusing the rhetoric on what they consider to be the illegal, unjust Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, the Golan Heights and the West Bank and Gaza.

Now, I believe that it's very important for our safety as the United States to basically not necessarily take the fight outside of Iraq and then go on to Iran and Syria and Hezbollah, particularly, even though the neoconservative hawks in the United States would like to extend the fight into Hezbollah. This is going to be a more formidable enemy of the United States, because they are very well organized and because they have extended support base throughout Lebanon and beyond Lebanon.

And I believe, if they are willing to not have any enmity against the United States, as they say now, militarily speaking or violently, the United States should not antagonize yet more forces, more factions in the Middle East. I believe that


COOPER: So you basically believe that the U.S. should enter into some sort of negotiations with them, which is something probably the Bush administration would quickly argue doesn't work, hasn't worked in the past, is not going to work in the future.

ABUKHALIL: Well, to be honest with you, in my research on the party last summer, I was told that there were in direct negotiations with the Party of God and the United States administration. I cannot confirm whether they are true or not.

But we know that the United States is now negotiating with the Iranian government in Geneva. And I am sure the issue of the Party of God is coming into the table. I personally hope that we do not begin or in any way start a conflict with Hezbollah, because it has tens of thousands of supporters. And they say now -- one should take them at their own words -- that they do not wish to extend their fight which they have against Israel against the United States.


COOPER: So what about the chants, the repeated chants, of, "Death to America" that we just even heard several days and weeks ago that you can hear just about every day at a Hezbollah meeting? Those aren't to be taken seriously?

ABUKHALIL: Well unless one wants to take the manifestation of jingoistic, empty rhetoric. That's what these slogans are. They happen here in the United States, in Lebanon, in Iraq, and elsewhere. They should be taken as such. I personally don't think...

COOPER: Well, it's interesting that a party who you says has no anger toward the United States is chanting, "Death to America."

But we're going to have to leave it there, Professor As'ad AbuKhalil. Appreciate you joining us tonight. Thanks for your perspective.


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