Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the most influential religious authorities for Shiite Moslems in Lebanon, said in an interview today that he would put pressure on the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 to release the hostages if the hijackers' demands are met.
He warned that the crisis had to be resolved quickly before it becomes a regional or international problem and beyond his ability to influence.
Fadlallah is widely regarded as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, or Party of God, an extremist, Iranian-inspired Shiite group. Yesterday Hezbollah was accused by the U.S. administration of holding a group of the hostages from the hijacked plane.
American and Israeli newspapers have quoted U.S. intelligence sources as naming Fadlallah and his followers in Hezbollah as the perpetrators of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in October 1983.
Fadlallah, who has been interviewed by this correspondent before, appeared to want to use the interview to distance himself from the hostage-taking.
Fadlallah denied that he is Hezbollah's leader, but he acknowledged that he wields considerable influence among the armed Shiite groups that appear to be involved in this crisis.
Speaking at his modest home in the neighborhood of Bir al Abed, where he escaped a car-bomb assassination attempt March 8 that killed 82 persons and injured 250, Fadlallah insisted that he was "very far" from the hijacking of the TWA airliner.
Commenting on the identity of the hijackers, he said they came from diverse groups linked to relatives of Shiite Lebanese prisoners in Israel.
Asked whether they were members of Hezbollah, Fadlallah said. "I have no accurate information on this. I don't know them personally, but I could if I wanted do. I have not been asked, and I don't feel I have a role. I heard this from other people and through the media. I have not tried to investigate any deeper into who they are.
"From what I have learned in the field, the hostages are safe and in trusted hands," the turbaned spiritual leader said. Fadlallah said that if the matter of the hijacked TWA airliner takes "its natural course," meaning that if Israel releases more than 700 Lebanese Shiites from Atlit prison, he could have a favorable impact.
"If the matter takes its natural course, which would guarantee the interests of all, then I can have the freedom of action to exert pressure on all friends from Amal and outside of Amal to bring the whole affair to a happy end," Fadlallah emphasized. But he warned that he could promise nothing if the demands of the hijackers were not met.
"The hijackers are not members of one specific organization or side but a movement related to the families of the prisoners . . . who have a big role in the operation," he added.
He advised that the dilemma in which the United States finds itself should not be "prolonged, because the parties keeping the hostages are diversified and not one party or of one color. We don't know at this stage the nature of political interference that can develop. Things here begin on an individual level, are then localized. Afterward they become regional and then international. This is the way events develop in Lebanon. Any side can exploit this situation."
Without naming the regional power he had in mind, he specified that it was closely linked with the main negotiating party in the hostage crisis. He was referring to Syria and the Shiite Amal movement of Nabih Berri, who has agreed to negotiate on behalf of the hijackers.
Fadlallah stressed that "America must know that there is a large international group trying to profit from its mistakes."
The Shiite Moslem cleric, speaking quietly and with an even voice, noted that he was not making any threats or reacting with emotion but speaking as someone who "understood the pain of the people and recognized the political backdrop to acts of despair."
He reiterated earlier statements denouncing all kidnapings and hijackings and recalled that only one week ago he had strongly protested the abduction of the president of the American University Hospital, David Jacobsen, and of the dean of the American University of Beirut school of architecture, Thomas Sutherland.
"However, we urge America to study the matter objectively and on its merits and to understand what the issues are. Does America ever ask itself what gives rise to what it calls terrorism?" he asked.
"Is it due to external influence or insane fervor, or is it triggered by a genuine condition emanating from a context of reality. We believe violence breeds violence. If America tries to carry out its policies in the area through violence directly, or indirectly via Israel, then I don't believe it will come up against reasoned logic, but it will participate in the madness of the region," Fadlallah continued.
"And when this area goes crazy, then naturally neither its rulers, those allied to America or America will be able to do anything," he warned.
Fadlallah said he was deeply pained by the plight of the American hostages because they have no hand in what Israel or what the U.S. administration do.
He insisted that there was no intention to inflict any physical, psychological or other harm on the hostages. Fadlallah said that he thought the crisis would not last long because he believed that the issue was a sensitive one for the American people and government.
He said he considered kidnapings "unhumanitarian and un-Islamic" and referred to several sermons in which he preached that a distinction should be made between the American people and the U.S. government.
"We cannot make the American people shoulder the blame for the mistakes of the American government committed against other people," Fadlallah said. Citing a phrase from the Koran, he concluded: "No man should carry the yoke of other people's errors."