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A look at radical Muslim power

Are Muslim radicals changed by the experience of sharing in the responsibilities of government? The world has a lot riding on the answer to that question, and I can offer a small vignette drawn from a conversation with Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.

I visited Nasrallah Thursday in his heavily guarded headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut. This is Hezbollah land: The narrow streets are chaotic, with bootleg telephone, electricity and cable TV wires dangling from every building, and surveillance cameras watching everything that moves. When you enter the inner compound, guards check for explosives or tracking devices in your pen, your watch, even your wedding ring.

Nasrallah was talking in the abstract about the democratic successes of Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamic movements. Yes, he said, having political power would change Hamas. It would "burden them with larger political responsibilities." The group would remain attached to its principles, he said, "but its behavior may be influenced" by the responsibility of government.

Then the phone rang, and the Hezbollah leader took a series of calls about the political stalemate that has paralyzed the Lebanese government. What transpired over the next few minutes was a demonstration that Nasrallah himself can, in the crunch, make the political deals that are part of governing. It also showed that however eager Islamic groups are for political power, they won't easily give up their guns.

Here's the background: A month ago, Nasrallah decided that the two Hezbollah members of the Lebanese Cabinet and three other Shiite ministers should walk out in protest of decisions made by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. The issue was Siniora's call for an international tribunal to weigh evidence gathered about the assassinations of Lebanese political leaders. But the real problem was Nasrallah's fear that Siniora was challenging Hezbollah's status as an armed "resistance" fighting Israel.

Without its Shiite members, the Lebanese Cabinet was unable to make decisions on major issues, and the country was nearing a political and economic paralysis. Siniora told me it was a full-blown "political crisis." French and American diplomats here feared that Nasrallah might scuttle the government altogether.

Instead, reason prevailed, or at least a Levantine version of it. Siniora made a statement in Parliament Thursday that finessed the resistance/militia issue to Nasrallah's satisfaction. The prime minister also promised that consensus would rule on major issues if the Shiite ministers returned.

Nasrallah, after fielding a second phone call, turned to me and said the issue was "99 percent resolved." Hezbollah would get to keep its weapons, for now, and Lebanon would avert political disaster, for now.

Before we got into the hardball reality of Middle East politics, I had asked Nasrallah about the idealistic version advanced by President Bush in his State of the Union speech. I read him a passage in which Bush said "liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity."

"Nice words. Lovely words," he answered, "but the important thing is to allow people to act in liberty and freedom." He wondered, for example, whether the real power in Iraq would be exercised by the newly elected Iraqi government, or by the 100,000 U.S. troops based there. Yet he did suggest that the Bush administration's democratization campaign might soften Muslim anger at America, if the U.S. can show it is serious.

The Bush administration's campaign for democracy has produced an unlikely cast of winners -- Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Shiite clerics in Iraq. To that list must be added Hasan Nasrallah, who may prove to be the cleverest and toughest of them all.

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