Last stand for Hizbollah chief

Robert Fisk met Lebanon's most radical sheikh as his enemies closed in
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The Independent Online
I THINK Sheikh Sobhi Tofeili knew the end was coming. "Whether my struggle ends in my arrest or my assassination, I do not care," the former Hizbollah leader told me a few hours before his dreams of a "Revolution of the Hungry" were destroyed in a barrage of Lebanese army and militia gunfire yesterday that left at least eight people dead. They included an army officer, a former Lebanese MP and a 17-year-old girl.

Sheikh Tofeili must have appreciated the irony; although the founding father of Hizbollah was expelled only four days ago from the powerful pro-Iranian guerrilla force he helped to create, his final battle was fought within sight of the Roman temples of Baalbek, monuments to the greatest empire of antiquity.

He had given no sign at our meeting that his own militiamen - who broke away from the Hizbollah last week in the movement's first serious split - were about to occupy a religious school on the outskirts of Baalbek. When I arrived to talk to the man held chiefly responsible for the taking of Western hostages in the mid-1980s, his security guards politely searched my camera bag before ushering me into a room where the bearded and bespectacled sheikh sat in a brown robe and white turban. A 50-year-old French sniper's rifle hung on the wall above his head.

Yesterday, he had fled the shell-smashed school building in Baalbek for his home village of Britel, outside the city, where hundreds of Lebanese troops with armoured vehicles surrounded him. More than 50 people - many of them his own gunmen - lay wounded in the city's hospitals.

It was clear the Hizbollah's leadership in Beirut had given their tacit consent to the sheikh's suppression; after expelling him from the movement, they ignored his appeal to Iran to reinstate him. Sheikh Tofeili had continued to present himself as a spokesman for the rural poor of eastern Lebanon although, when I met him, he seemed exhausted, rubbing his eyes with big plump hands and speaking with tiredness in his voice.

He insisted that the "Revolution of the Hungry" he had led for more than a year - calling for the overthrow of the government and mass street demonstrations - was intended to force the Lebanese authorities to alleviate poverty in the Bekaa valley, whose farmers once grew rich on drug production and now eked out a living on potatoes and tomatoes.

"The government have drowned this country in vast debts without any result and public money is frequently stolen by people in high places," he said. "They have followed a policy of (post-civil war) reconstruction based on tourism and peace with the Zionist enemy. Now we find there is no peace and no tourism." It was not difficult to see why the Lebanese government had grown tired of Sheikh Tofeili - and why his former Hizbollah colleagues wished to be rid of what they regarded as a troublesome priest.

Long after the Hizbollah turned themselves into a guerrilla army devoted to the battle against Israeli occupation - and participated in Lebanese parliamentary elections - the sheikh, denouncing the politics of compromise and calling for the total destruction of Israel, was a reminder of darker days, when the so-called "Islamic Jihad" movement, a Hizbollah satellite, had abducted scores of Westerners. Yet the sheikh, who studied with Ayatollah Khomeini at the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, denied all blame when I met him on the eve of his downfall and, astonishingly, denounced kidnapping.

"The taking of hostages caused us great harm," he said. "It harmed Islam. It harmed Imam Khomeini and his character and image throughout the world. It harmed us in Lebanon. It destroyed the sympathy which might have been shown towards us by a large number of people throughout the world. I have said - and I repeat - that Hizbollah is innocent of all this. At the time, we tried every possible way to stop kidnapping but we were unable to do so."

The sheikh's denial, was sharply at odds with the account of Terry Anderson, the longest-held US hostage who spent almost seven years in Lebanese militia dungeons and apartments, ending his imprisonment in Baalbek in 1990. He recalled being trapped during his captivity inside Sheikh Tofeili's Beirut office, writing in his diary that "we are quite obviously being held by Tofeili. So much for Hizbollah's denial that they have anything to do with Islamic Jihad".

In a remarkable way, Sheikh Tofeili's star paralleled that of the old radical factions in post-revolutionary Iran. Just as the Iranians who originally followed Ayatollah Khomeini's sternest instructions to the letter - taking over the US embassy in Tehran, declaring war on the regime's enemies abroad and invoking harsh punishments on all "enemies of the state" - are being replaced by more moderate leaders such as the new Iranian president Mohamed Khatami, so power within Iran's Hizbollah proteges passed from Sheikh Tofeili to Sayed Abbas Moussawi, a more thoughtful guerrilla leader who was assassinated by the Israelis, and then to Sayed Hassan Nasrallah.

Yesterday it appeared Sheikh Tofeili had ended his career by splitting the militia he helped to found and making enemies of both the Lebanese government and the Syrians as well as his former comrades. When I asked him why the old sniper's rifle hung on the wall of his home, he burst into laughter before replying. "People sometimes give presents like this to their friends," he said. "It is just decoration. Perhaps it is here to make journalists ask questions about it ..."

Yesterday, other guns in Baalbek were sending a quite different message to Sheikh Tofeili.

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