SHEIK FADLALLAH

Sheik Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah is the senior religious leader of Lebanon's 2 million Shia and spiritual leader of Hizbullah. Still classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Hizbullah has more recently gone mainstream, fielding candidates in national elections, sponsoring social programs for the poor and banning the terrorist tactics espoused in the mid-1980s. NEWSWEEK's Baghdad bureau chief Rod Nordland spoke with the cleric at his well-guarded home in the Beirut suburbs. Excerpts:

NORDLAND: Does the liberation of Iraq's Shia change your view of America?

FADLALLAH: America is responsible for a great part of what Saddam did, including his obtaining WMD. It encouraged him in the war against Iran and later Kuwait, so as to legitimize its own military presence in the gulf. Saddam was a monster, but America supported that monster as it does many others in the world.

Still, Saddam issued a death sentence against you. Don't you owe some debt of gratitude?

None. America was pursuing its own interests; it wasn't being a charitable organization. OK, it laid off its employee, Saddam. From that point of view, Iraq is better off. On the other hand, Iraqis don't feel they're better off--or more secure.

Yet you must feel glad to see your fellow Shias in Iraq free from oppression.

We want to preserve the country for all Iraqis, Kurds or Sunnis or whomever. We want the Shia in Iraq and the region, and everywhere else, to get their rights as equal citizens, but the Shia are not looking to control things. They don't want to persecute others as they were persecuted in the past.

You sound pretty anti-American.

The people of the Mideast used to consider the U.S. a symbol of freedom. Europe was the colonizer, and America was against colonizing. Americans should now ask themselves why have the people of the world, including the Mideast, come to hate them. But we do not accept aggression against the American people, which is why I was the first Islamic figure to condemn the events of 9/11.

How do you feel about suicide bombings in the occupied territories?

In a state of war all weapons are justified. Look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic bombs killed 200,000 civilians and this was not wrong. It ended the war.

So attacks on civilians in Iraq are "legal"?

All operations against civilian and humanitarian agencies are unlawful and condemned in Iraq, but Palestine is different. It's in a state of war. These attacks are intended to make Sharon understand that if Palestinians have no security in their own land, Israelis will have none in theirs.

Surely you can't believe a state of war doesn't exist in Iraq as well?

Where there is occupation, there is a state of war. But opposition should be in a peaceful way. Suicide bombing is not legal. Attacks on U.N. personnel and international organizations and civilians are not legal.

President Bush should look at the Statue of Liberty and remember that all people oppose occupation. Let them strengthen the presence of the United Nations in Iraq, supervise elections and everything will be OK. Replace this American force with a force that works for the U. N.

Who do you blame for the Ashoura bombings in Karbala and Baghdad?

Some Islamic world analysts think the CIA and Mossad are behind these attacks, in order to blame enemies like Al Qaeda and prolong America's occupation of Iraq. These invisible schemes, on more than one side, seem to be aimed at provoking civil war; even Sunni mosques have been attacked. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's statement that Iraq cannot be protected from such attacks is irresponsible. After September 11, the administration made a great effort to protect Americans and nothing wrong happened since then. Why did it not do the same in Iraq?

Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other Shia leaders have called for calm in the aftermath of the killings. Can that hold?

We have called on Iraqis to reject sectarianism, which might destroy good and bad together and prolong the American occupation under the pretext of maintaining order. We believe the wise people of Iraq have enough brains and will to foil these schemes.

Now that there's an interim Constitution, do you think the Americans will keep their promise and transfer authority to the Iraqis on July 1?

We have reservations. Any constitution can only derive legally from the people's approval through an elected constitutional council, which this did not. And the sovereignty the Americans are promising will not be complete, because occupying forces will stay as the dominant power in Iraq politically, economically and security-wise. It will look like sovereignty from the outside, but not from the inside.

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