'The Best Guerrilla Force in the World'

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By Edward Cody and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 14, 2006

BEIRUT, Aug. 14 -- Hezbollah's irregular fighters stood off the modern Israeli army for a month in the hills of southern Lebanon thanks to extraordinary zeal and secrecy, rigorous training, tight controls over the population, and a steady flow of Iranian money to acquire effective weaponry, according to informed assessments in Lebanon and Israel.

"They are the best guerrilla force in the world," said a Lebanese specialist who has sifted through intelligence on Hezbollah for more than two decades and strongly opposes the militant Shiite Muslim movement.

Because Hezbollah was entrenched in friendly Shiite-inhabited villages and underground bunkers constructed in secret over several years, a withering Israeli air campaign and a tank-led ground assault were unable to establish full control over a border strip and sweep it clear of Hezbollah guerrillas -- one of Israel's main declared war aims. Largely as a result, the U.N. Security Council resolution approved unanimously Friday night fell short of the original objectives laid out by Israel and the Bush administration when the conflict began July 12.

As the declared U.N. cease-fire went into effect Monday morning, many Lebanese -- particularly among the Shiites who make up an estimated 40 percent of the population -- had already assessed Hezbollah's endurance as a military success despite the devastation wrought across Lebanon by Israeli bombing.

Hezbollah's staying power on the battlefield came from a classic fish-in-the-sea advantage enjoyed by guerrillas on their home ground, hiding in their own villages and aided by their relatives. Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, summed up the guerrilla strategy in a televised address during the conflict when he said, "We are not a regular army and we will not fight like a regular army."

The group's battlefield resilience also came from an unusual combination of zeal and disciplined military science, said the Lebanese specialist with access to intelligence information, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name.

The fighters' Islamic faith and intense indoctrination reduced their fear of death, he noted, giving them an advantage in close-quarters combat and in braving airstrikes to move munitions from post to post. Hezbollah leaders also enhanced fighters' willingness to risk death by establishing the Martyr's Institute, with an office in Tehran, that guarantees living stipends and education fees for the families of fighters who die on the front.

"If you are waiting for a white flag coming out of the Hezbollah bunker, I can assure you it won't come," Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of the Israeli army's general staff, said in a briefing for reporters in the northern Israeli village of Gosherim. "They are extremists, they will go all the way."

Moreover, Hezbollah's military leadership carefully studied military history, including the Vietnam War, the Lebanese expert said, and set up a training program with help from Iranian intelligence and military officers with years of experience in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The training was matched to weapons that proved effective against Israeli tanks, he added, including the Merkava main battle tank with advanced armor plating.

Wire-guided and laser-guided antitank missiles were the most effective and deadly Hezbollah weapons, according to Israeli military officers and soldiers. A review of Israel Defense Forces records showed that the majority of Israeli combat deaths resulted from missile hits on armored vehicles -- or on buildings where Israeli soldiers set up observation posts or conducted searches.

Most of the antitank missiles, Israeli officers noted, could be dragged out of caches and quickly fired with two- or three-man launching teams at distances of 3,200 yards or more from their targets. One of the most effective was the Russian-designed Sagger 2, a wire-guided missile with a range of 550 to 3,200 yards.

In one hidden bunker, Israeli soldiers discovered night-vision camera equipment connected to computers that fed coordinates of targets to the Sagger 2 missile, according to Israeli military officials who described the details from photographs they said soldiers took inside the bunker.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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