Page last updated at 05:28 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 06:28 UK

Inside Lebanese Hezbollah militia

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

Hezbollah supporters at rally - 25 May 2009
Hezbollah behaves as a normal political party and has a powerful militia separate from the state

Ahead of key elections in Lebanon, BBC News has gained rare access to a fighter of the powerful military wing of Hezbollah, which stands a strong chance of making political gains via the ballot box.

As President Barack Obama prepares to address the Arab world in Cairo this week, one dilemma that his administration will face is the growing political clout of Hezbollah.

In the US and Britain, the group is proscribed, but in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies stand a strong chance of winning the upcoming parliamentary election.

Tall, immaculately dressed and articulate, the man did not fit my image of a fighter.

"We are not some hardliners who hide in the mountains," he smiled, clearly amused by my observation.

We met late at night, in a safe house on the outskirts of Beirut.

Mahmoud, as he asked to be called, was preparing for a trip to Europe, where he says he often goes on business.

"Among the Hezbollah fighters there are many doctors, engineers, architects. There are also government employees. When we are not fighting, we go back to our jobs, and families. We fight, but we also cherish life," he said.

A childhood spent in a part of Lebanon occupied by Israel is what he says drove him to join Hezbollah 15 years ago.

"Growing up, I was surrounded by pain and suffering, and I was searching for ways to change things. Hezbollah was the most organised party that could stand up to Israel and to me it offered a chance of dignity and decent life," he says.

Tough training

Hezbollah's training, he said, is built on three pillars.

"Patriotism is the first; we learn how to love our country. Secondly we get Islamic education, although you don't have to be a Muslim to join. And of course, we also get military training."

The military part of his Hezbollah education was the toughest, he admits.

We have two arms, but we belong to one body. There is no such things as the military wing or the political wing of Hezbollah - we are all part of one resistance

"The conditions during the training are extremely harsh. Among us are some posh guys who are used to eating their muesli in the mornings, but suddenly we'd find we would not even be fed, but told to go and find our own food."

"We'd ask them: Where? And would be told, on the trees. But there were no trees in the area. Now we laugh about it, but at the time it was real survival experience," Mahmoud said.

Over the years, Mahmoud rose through the Hezbollah ranks, although he does not reveal his exact position.

Although units of Hezbollah fighters are constantly present in South Lebanon, Mahmoud says its wrong to think of Hezbollah as a regular army.

Like most fighters, he says, he has regular fighting periods, but is free to choose a timetable that suits him best.

"Hezbollah is very flexible and very understanding of those who have other commitments. But we are required to go through regular combat training to refresh our memory," he says. "And of course, if you are a member of resistance, it is your priority."

Created in the 1980s with the financial backing of Iran and a goal of fighting Israel, today Hezbollah is probably the most powerful, best-funded militia in the Middle East.

"Iran of course helps ideologically and financially, but it's not our only source. We have plenty of friends."

Obama in the Middle East

The United States is not among them, and Mahmoud is dismissive of the message that President Obama is bringing to the Middle East.

"Obama should focus on helping his own people - all we want is for him to leave us alone. We don't care who is in power in Washington, Obama's arrival does not make any difference," he said.

Campaign posters of Lebanese candidate Magda Breidi, running for a Christian seat in parliament in the Bekaa province
Hezbollah is expected to do well in upcoming elections

He says another war with Israel is likely, and even though "Hezbollah does not want to call for it, we are very well prepared".

Hezbollah, he says, is stronger than ever before and not only militarily.

In Lebanon, many believe that the Hezbollah-led opposition has a good chance of winning a crucial parliamentary election on 7 June.

Many of the Hezbollah election slogans ahead of the vote call for better education, for eradication of poverty and corruption.

But next to the election posters that could belong to any political party anywhere in the world hang portraits of men who died fighting in the conflict with Israel.

While Hezbollah calls them martyrs, the US and Britain say they are terrorists.

The US banned Hezbollah following a series of kidnappings, hijackings and bombings against the American and Jewish targets in the 1980s.

Among the most famous of them was the 1983 attack on the US military barracks, and the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires.

In 2007, Britain accused Hezbollah of training and supporting insurgents in Iraq, which the organisation has denied.

But more recently, the United Kingdom government decided to distinguish between the two faces of Hezbollah - by talking to its politicians while keeping the military wing on the terrorist list.

But Mahmoud, the fighter, says the UK is fooling itself by making this distinction.

"We have two arms, but we belong to one body. There is no such things as the military wing or the political wing of Hezbollah - we are all part of one resistance," he said.

"Hezbollah will become a purely political party only when Israel ceases to exist," he said.

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