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If cornered by the West over its nuclear program, Iran could direct Hizbullah to enlist its widespread international support network to aid in terrorist attacks, intelligence officials say.
In interviews with The Associated Press, several Western intelligence officials said they have seen signs that Hizbullah's fundraisers, recruiters and criminal elements could be adapted to provide logistical help to terrorist operatives.
Such help could include obtaining forged travel documents or off-the-shelf technology - global positioning equipment and night goggles, for example - that could be used for military purposes.
The senior officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive positions they occupy.
Hizbullah was responsible for the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The group's Saudi wing, in coordination with the larger Lebanese Hizbullah, is blamed for the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed hundreds of American servicemen.
Tensions between Iran and the United States and its allies have grown over Iran's expanding nuclear program. Iran insists its aims are peaceful; US officials say they are convinced the Iranians intend to develop a nuclear weapon within the next decade.
John Negroponte, head of the US intelligence network, suggested in an interview aired Friday by the British Broadcasting Corp. that an Iranian bomb could be a fact in as little as four years, although he admitted, "We don't have clear-cut knowledge."
The United States and five other world powers agreed Thursday on a plan designed to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Iran's president, without directly mentioning the proposal, pledged on Friday that the West would not deprive his country of nuclear technology.
The Bush administration and US allies know that Iran could order attacks. Some officials believe that threat is a bargaining chip worth more to Iran if kept in reserve.
Given the potential that diplomacy could fail to defuse the nuclear standoff, US intelligence agencies are studying Iran's options to retaliate: using oil as a weapon, attacking Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, unleashing Hizbullah, or other tactics.
The State Department classified Hizbullah as a terror organization. Its terrorist wing, the Islamic Jihad organization, is a global threat, with cells in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and North America. Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, Hizbullah was responsible for more American deaths than any other single terror organization.
Yet, in many countries, Hizbullah is praised for providing education, medical care and housing, particularly in Lebanon's south, and raising money for it is legal.
So far there are no signs the Iranian-backed group plans an imminent attack on US interests. But the possibility has counterterrorism agencies keeping close watch as the friction with Iran grows.
US analysts believe the potential is greater for Iran to use terrorism to retaliate, rather than to strike first. But they have considered scenarios under which Iran may view its own pre-emptive attack as a deterrent.
One senior official said that if Iran were backed into a corner and considered US-led military action as inevitable, the Iranians might calculate that terrorism could break international unity, increase pressure on the United States or shift Americans' public opinion.
US analysts, however, are cautious in their judgments about what might lead Iran to order strikes.
Hizbullah, which means Party of God, was founded in 1982 to respond to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. The radical Shiite organization advocates for Israel's elimination and the establishment of an Islamic government in Lebanon modeled after the religious theocracy in Iran.
With some exceptions, Hizbullah has not targeted the United States in recent years - a strategic decision that gives the group more freedom to operate, according to one US counterterrorism official.
Hizbullah was tied to a string of kidnappings and assassinationsof Westerners in the 1980s, ordered up by Iran. Victims included the CIA's former station chief in Tehran, William Buckley.
Hizbullah is accused of bombing the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in the early 1990s, killing more than 100. The group denies the charges.
A former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said before and right after the Sept. 11 attacks that Hizbullah was believed to have the largest embedded terrorist network inside the United States. "I have no reason to believe that there has been a dismantlement of that capability," said former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.
Steven Monblatt, head of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, said tensions with Iran could lead Hizbullah to begin preparing attacks on Western interests in Latin America and elsewhere.
"I think it is legitimate to be concerned about situations where terrorist groups will not have an operational base, but will have made the preparations to establish one," said Monblatt, a former State Department official. "I don't know anyone alleging an operational cell right now. Now, how do you distinguish an operational cell from a sleeper operation - a more kind of logistical base?"
Leadership in Hizbullah is exercised by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite Muslim cleric who took over after an Israeli helicopter strike in 1992 killed Sheik Abbas Musawi.
Hizbullah gets significant support from Iran, Shiite communities and particularly the Lebanese diaspora. One official said the group has access to several hundred million dollars a year, much of it going to the social service network in southern Lebanon.
The organization has been linked to all kinds of organized crime, including drug trafficking, drug counterfeiting and stolen baby formula. The substantial profits are thought to be funneled almost entirely back to the Middle East.
Kevin Brock, a career FBI agent who is now deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently told reporters that the United States has active investigations into Hizbullah around the world.
"The prioritization obviously has been al-Qaida, but that doesn't mean Hizbullah has dropped off the screen by any stretch of the imagination," Brock said.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have had success in breaking up Hizbullah-linked crime rings, including a cigarette-smuggling operation in North Carolina, a tobacco-growing Southern state.
This year, the Justice Department announced an indictment charging 19 people with a global racketeering conspiracy to sell counterfeit rolling papers, contraband cigarettes and counterfeit Viagra. Portions of the profits were given to Hizbullah.
Extensive operations have been uncovered in South America, where Hizbullah is well connected to the drug trade, particularly in the region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. The area has a large Shiite Muslim immigrant population.