In his State of the Union address last night, President Bush talked for the first time about the threat of Shia extremism, placing it and the leading Shia extremist group, Hezbollah, alongside Sunni extremism, and al-Qaida, as threats to the United States.
Speaking of al-Qaida, the President stated: "These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement. In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East. Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah, a group second only to al-Qaida in the American lives it has taken.
"The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes. They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale." (Click to read the full transcript of Bush's speech.)
What's going on here? Is the U.S. planning an attack on Hezbollah?
The ability of Hezbollah to resist the Israeli Army, leading to the resignation of the Israeli Army's chief of staff, has indeed given Hezbollah new status. Moreover, the administration believes that the Shia militias in Iraq are now as much a problem as the Sunni extremists and they have modeled themselves after Hezbollah. And of course, behind it all, the administration sees the hidden hand of Iran. (Iranian officials at least publicly admit to "influence" with Hezbollah, but not "control" over it.)
But there is division within the administration over how far to go in threatening Hezbollah. No one disputes the threat, with many administration officials believing Hezbollah is a more capable terrorist group than al-Qaida, IF it mobilized against the U.S. Many see even Hezbollah's military commander, Imad Mugniyah, as a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden, because of Bin Laden's isolation and Mugniyah's open power in Lebanon.
A key part of this dispute is whether to go after Mugniyah, who apparently has taken on the nom de guerre of Jawad Nouredine. There are those who would like the U.S. to be more aggressive in pursuit of him, before he comes after the U.S. Mugniyah is believed responsible for the Marine Barracks bombing in 1983, the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 two years later, the kidnappings of western hostages, the torture and murder of CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley and the hanging of Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins. He even met with Osama Bin Laden in 1994, according to Bin Laden's then security chief. Mugniyah operates believing that the U.S. will not cross a "red line" and try to take him out, secure in the knowledge that the U.S. never "paid him back" for the Beirut Marine barracks, as one official put it.
Some in the U.S. government believe if the U.S. went after him, it would indeed be crossing that "red line" and inviting a Hezbollah attack against U.S. interests or more likely, the U.S. homeland. This side believes that there is no need to go after Mugniyah or Hezbollah, that they are well aware that if they attack the U.S. homeland, the consequences would ultimately be a second front in the War on Terror, something no one wants.