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CNN SUNDAY

Interview With Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah

Aired March 16, 2003 - 18:11   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: As the world races for a possible countdown to war in Iraq, the battle cry from another troubled spot is "Death to America." Not surprisingly, it is coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group one U.S. expert warns may be the A-team of terrorists, a group within striking distance of Israel. CNN's Sheila MacVicar landed an exclusive and fascinating interview with the leader of Hezbollah. She joins us now from Amman, Jordan -- Sheila.
SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I met with the Sheikh last night in Beirut. He is, in fact, the leader of Hezbollah, the organization that the United States considers to be a terrorist organization. And after hearing a lot of very hot rhetoric from Sheikh last week in Beirut, as you said, death to America, he quite surprisingly took a different tone in this interview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MACVICAR: I heard you in your speech on asura (ph) when you spoke to the people who were gathered there. And you said that the people, speaking to the Americans, the people of this region would receive, them meaning the Americans, with rifles, blood, arms, with martyrdom and martyrdom operations, suicide bombings. If that is what you believe, will Hezbollah take part in those operations? Would Hezbollah launch attacks against U.S. forces in the region?

SHEIKH HASSAN NASRALLAH, HEZBOLLAH LEADER: The occupiers could stay 10, 50, 100 years, but in the end they leave. I believe this occupation will be resisted. But with regards to Hezbollah, we are in a state of confrontation with Israeli occupiers and the battle is not over yet. It is still going on. As far as the region is concerned, it is subject to what happens. In the end, we are part of this region, and we are affected by its developments. What we may do or not do in the future depends on the nature of what happens here in the region.

MACVICAR: You talked about how during the days when American forces were in Beirut, people in the southern suburbs screamed "Death to America." You went on to say, now with U.S. forces back in the region, "Death to America" was, is and shall remain our slogan, and not merely a slogan but a policy. How does Hezbollah intend to implement that policy?

NASRALLAH: in that same speech, I said, we don't mean death to American people but death to the U.S. project in the region. We don't want to kill. We did not launch attacks on U.S. grounds. We don't want to kill Americans.

MACVICAR: My point of clarification is to ask you whether or not that means that if U.S. forces come to this region and remain in this region that Hezbollah might then consider them a legitimate target?

NASRALLAH: If they come to Iraq?

MACVICAR: If they come to the region, if they come to Iraq, if they stay in Iraq.

NASRALLAH: This will be up to the Iraqi people, and the way the Iraqi people will deal with these troops. Will they consider them friendly troops or occupying troops? Sooner or later, the Iraqis will consider them as occupiers. We have no presence in Iraq, but certainly if the American troops come and attack Lebanon, without question, we will fight them.

MACVICAR: You know that one of the key questions here in the region that many want to know the answer to is how will Hezbollah act if there is a war? Would Hezbollah, for example, attack Israel if there is a war?

NASRALLAH: Our policy is clear, we are fighting in an area that is still under occupation in Lebanon. And beyond that area, we are on the defensive. What is being talked about now is the probability of the Sharon government launching an attack against Lebanon to eliminate the resistance of Hezbollah by using the American war against Iraq. But, of course, in this case, we will certainly fight with all our strength.

MACVICAR: You will have heard, of course, that the Israelis, Israeli intelligence, some American officials have been now saying for nearly two years that Hezbollah has come into possession of what they describe as thousands of missiles, missiles that they say have a longer range capability than Hezbollah has previously been known to be in possession of. Do you possess missiles which are capable of striking into the heart of Israel's urban centers?

NASRALLAH: We believe that it is our right to possess any weapon we choose to defend our country. It is our right to have weapons. Lebanon is caught in a cycle of threats. And it is our duty to be strong and capable of defending our country. But we will not clarify or explain what we do or do not possess.

MACVICAR: The United States administration calls Hezbollah the a-team of terrorism. They say that you owe the United States a blood debt. They say that there is a price to be paid for that and that you are on their list. And when the time is right, they are going to come after Hezbollah. What do you think the United States will do, and what will you do?

NASRALLAH: Hezbollah's problem with the American administration is that we're fighting Israel. And I'm as certain as I can be that if we were to say we'd give up the fight against the Israelis, that we would not retaliate if Israel attacks our country, then there's a very great possibility that Hezbollah would be dropped from the American list of terrorist organizations. We did not start a fight with America, and we don't want a war with America. If someone launches an attack, though, we will respond. We will not take rejection or humiliation. We do not want to fight.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MACVICAR: Anderson, that was the key message of Sheikh Nasrallah -- that Hezbollah is now not looking for a fight. He came as close as he possibly could of saying that they were not interested now in attacking Israel. Of course, saying that if, in fact, Lebanon was attacked they would reserve the right to respond. A very different tone, as I said before, in this interview than in some of the other public statements that we've heard from Sheikh Nasrallah, which in many ways may have been meant for domestic consumption in Lebanon -- Anderson.

COOPER: That really was my question, Sheila. It is just sort of fascinating seeing the two sides of this. On the one hand, that very public statement in front of that huge, enormous crowd, you know, greeted with a rapturous response, and then the statements to you, clearly, a case of different audiences. It would lead me to believe that this is a group, which certainly has a sense of PR, public relations, and knows how to target the message.

MACVICAR: I think this is also a group that very clearly has been receiving some messages itself. It very clearly is aware of America's war on terror. There is no question about that. They know what U.S. officials have said. They understand very clearly what the stakes are for Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not just a military force inside Lebanon. It is also a social force that runs hospitals and schools and a political organization, which controls 11 seats in Lebanon's parliament. So it is a whole other side to it.

There was also the question of Hezbollah's sponsors, Syria. And there is no question that Syria, too, has been listening to messages from the U.S. administration, and very clearly understands what is at stake and has itself been putting pressure on Hezbollah. That's why, I think, we're hearing this very different message coming from Sheikh Nasrallah, a message which is clearly meant to signal to the U.S. administration and Israelis that Hezbollah is now not on the offensive -- Anderson.

COOPER: It reminds me of a piece you did several days ago, where you were traveling throughout the region, and you went up to the border, the Israeli border, and you actually talked to some Hezbollah fighters who kind of repeated the same thing, they're saying, our problem is not with -- it's that refrain you hear all throughout that part of the world, our problem is not with American citizens. It's with the government and the policy vis-a-vis Israel. So, it sounds like the group sort of has something of a unified message?

MACVICAR: I think that's true. But Hezbollah's message that it differs, it does not like American policy, it does not like the U.S. administration. Though it is no admirer of Saddam Hussein, it does not like the notion that the U.S. may very soon go to war against Iraq. And it does not like the fact that the U.S. may be considering some form of occupation of Iraq. It clearly separates out U.S. policy from the American people. And we hear that over and over again throughout this region.

We also hear, however, that if the U.S. continues these policies, people here may broaden their dislike for U.S. policy and turn it into anger against the American people. That was not the message from Sheikh Nasrallah. I must say, clearly, he was very careful to say this is not about the American people. Instead, it is about U.S. policy and even then, Hezbollah has no intention of seeking a fight with the United States.

COOPER: One more question, Sheila. What was clear in your interview as you just said, there was no real love for Saddam Hussein by the leader of Hezbollah. Explain that to American viewers a little bit. Why is that? I mean, often we think of all of these groups as in league or having some sort of bond. But there's not any love lost between this group and Saddam Hussein.

MACVICAR: No, absolutely not. They are ideologically completely opposed. Saddam Hussein runs a deeply secular regime. Hezbollah, of course, its ideology comes from its interpretation of Islam. It is also sponsored by Iran. And, of course, we all remember that in the 1980s, Iraq went to war against Iran, against the Islamic Republic of Iran. So Hezbollah's roots are very different. They come from a completely different from tradition. It looks at Saddam Hussein. It understands the ruthless nature of the regime. It understands the nature of his dictatorship and what the Iraqi people have suffered. And at the same time, it can say that a U.S. invasion and if, perhaps, eventual occupation of Iraq is not a good thing for the region, not a good thing for the Iraqis and perhaps, ultimately, not a good thing for Americans.

What they were very careful to say was that they do not operate in Iraq. And what happens after the invasion, if there is a war, what happens if there is some form of American occupation will be up to the Iraqi people and not up to Hezbollah. Now that said, Hezbollah also plays a very large role in the Palestinian conflict across the border with Israel -- Primarily one of, the Israelis say, of incitement, of broadcasting messages. They say it's to stiffen the resolve of the Palestinian people. As I said, the Israelis consider that incitement. We may see a similar development in that direction if that happens. It would depend upon the developments in the region as Sheik Nasrallah said, what course Hezbollah would take. But they are very clearly saying that they will not engage in any war with the United states -- Anderson.

COOPER: Sheila MacVicar, fascinating interview. Appreciate you joining us today live from Jordan. When we come back, we are going to talk more about Hezbollah with retired air force General George Harrison. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back.

The leader of the group Shiite Muslim group, Hezbollah, vowed very publicly that a U.S. attack on Iraq would be met with quote, "resistance, guns and suicide attacks." Of course, you just saw in that Sheila MacVicar report right before the break in a one-on-one exclusive interview, his tune changed considerably. Hezbollah has thousands of supporters in Lebanon, hundreds of trained militia in the Middle East. So, how could their involvement change things if there is a U.S.-Iraq war? Joining us to talk about that complication, retired air force General George Harrison. Thanks for being with us.

MAJ. GEN. GEORGE HARRISON, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Good to be here.

COOPER: Fascinating interview. As we were talking about during the break, that difference between the public rhetoric and the private. Let's talk about Hezbollah. Who are they? What do they want?

HARRISON: Well, Hezbollah is a group, of course, which is primarily Shiite Muslim. They started out their origins in southern Iraq. And they established an institute in southern Iraq in the late '70s, early '80's. The Iraqi regime rejected them from Iraq and they took up residence in Lebanon. As we recall from U.S. recent history, they were the group responsible for the bombing of the marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, a situation really caught us by surprise. We did not understand, I think, at that time the complications of dealing in the Middle East with this sort of terrorist environment.

They have a large base in the Bekaa Valley, that was the target of some Israeli activity. Of course, over the years, that's taken place. There's a large Israeli strike in the '80s in the Bekaa Valley stronghold.

COOPER: And every now and then you see sort of long-range video of a bombing somewhere in the Bekaa Valley, what is said to be a training center. So, they are said to have training centers there, but also in sort of quasi-suburban areas.

HARRISON: Well, they're certainly rooted deeply in Lebanon. They are, a strong force in Lebanon. There is a much larger Hezbollah group than their fighting force. Their fighting force is fairly small, numbering in the hundreds, and possibly up to a thousand. But their large base of support means they are a force to be reckoned with. And they have, as you recall, they had a bombing attack in 1994 on an Israeli cultural center in central America, in Buenos Aires, I believe, that killed 86 people. So, their complication in the area indicates the very complex nature of this Shiite, Sunni, Baath Party in Iraq -- the complex of relationships in the Middle East.

COOPER: And the reason we're talking about it today on this day, of all days, this momentous day, where we've had the summit and very possibly a couple of days away from war with Iraq, is because there had been some concern that a war in the region might motivate Hezbollah to carry suicide attacks, or some sort of attacks against either the United States or perhaps Israel. But the leader of Hezbollah just telling Sheila MacVicar that will not be the case against attacking the U.S. What do you think the likelihood is of attacks against Israel then? HARRISON: Well, I think it's very unlikely they'll get involved in attacks against Israel. We heard very clearly in the interview that they don't intend to proceed against Israel unless Israel comes against them. As we saw in the Gulf War in 1991, we will have very serious intense diplomatic pressures to keep the Israelis out of the conflict, because that's simply a complication that's not productive in terms of dealing with the primary issue of Iraq.

COOPER: Really fascinating stuff. General George Harrison, I appreciate you joining us. Thank you.

HARRISON: Pleasure to here.

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