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Last Updated: Friday, 28 July 2006, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
Arab leaders fear rise of Hezbollah

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Pilgrims hold pictures of Nasrallah in Najaf, Iraq
Protesters in the Arab world have shown support for Hezbollah
Hezbollah is riding a wave of popularity on the Arab street. Not since it played a role in forcing Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 has it enjoyed such adulation.

Its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is enjoying something akin to a personality cult.

At a time when Arab governments are seen as largely powerless to influence events, Hezbollah is seen as taking on the Israelis - and behind the Israelis, the American superpower.

This has put Arab leaders - in particular those allied to the United States - in a difficult quandary.

At the start of this crisis the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan did not hide their view that Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers was "reckless adventurism".

This was unusual enough, but they also openly directed their displeasure at the group's backers, Syria and Iran.

Their stance pleased the Bush administration but was roundly criticised at home.

They were seen as siding with the Israelis against the new champions of the Palestinian cause.

Dark warnings

Now there is a distinct shift.

Washington's Arab friends are pressing urgently for an immediate ceasefire.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has warned darkly of the danger of a wider regional war.

Saudi television this week organised a day-long appeal - or "telethon" - which raised some $29 million (15.55 million) for Lebanon.

Jordan protest
Protestors in the Arab world have shown support for Hezbollah

The Saudi media made much of the fact that the king and the crown prince made handsome personal donations.

In addition the Saudi state has given $1.5 billion (800 million) to support the Lebanese pound and help rebuild the shattered country.

It is not that these rulers have changed their minds.

They fear the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah.

They believe the regional balance of power is shifting in Iran's favour.

They think Iran and Hezbollah are trying to hijack the Palestinian cause.

Some Saudi religious figures have gone much further. For them the issue is not so much political as sectarian.

One well-known sheikh, Abdullah bin Jabreen, has issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, declaring it illegal for Muslims to join, support or even pray for Hezbollah.

This reflects the view of conservatives in the Saudi religious establishment that the Shia are not proper Muslims and are not to be trusted.

Joining the bandwagon

But the critics of Hezbollah find themselves in the minority.

Al-Qaeda does not want to be upstaged

The predominant view in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world is overwhelmingly supportive of Hezbollah.

For most people, the Palestinian cause transcends sectarian differences.

Even al-Qaeda, no friend of the Shia, has felt obliged to speak out.

The group's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has issued a video saying no Muslim can stay silent in the face of events in Lebanon.

Al-Qaeda does not want to be upstaged.

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