WASHINGTON -- The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah raging along the Lebanese border could soon hamper the U.S. fight against terrorism, according to current and former intelligence officials.
Not only does the bloodshed play into the rhetoric of al-Qaida leaders, they said, but it is straining alliances that the United States depends upon to fight terrorism. It might also align two terrorist groups that have historically feuded over religious differences -- al-Qaida and Hezbollah -- against the United States, which is seen as inseparable from Israel in the Arab world.
The underestimation of Hezbollah's fighting power also raises questions about U.S. intelligence in the region, these officials said. Hezbollah, designated by the State Department as a terrorist group, also holds positions in the Lebanese government.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called Hezbollah "a more formidable foe" than previously thought. He said that Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to understand the extent of Hezbollah's organization and fire power in southern Lebanon.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at the Rand Corp., said the strength that Hezbollah has demonstrated "has to be regarded as a setback" for the United States campaign against terrorism.
The U.S. intelligence official agreed. "It's hurting us in some ways, obviously," he said. He mentioned the increasing stress on U.S. relations with European and Arab allies over the Bush administration's support for Israel's aggressive response, the perception in the Arab world that America is indifferent to Arab loss of life, and the value of this latest conflict as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida and other terror groups.
President Bush sought to recast his government's image and approach yesterday during an appearance at the White House with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Our top priorities in Lebanon are providing immediate humanitarian relief, achieving an end to the violence, ensuring the return of displaced persons and assisting with reconstruction," he said
But Bush did not call for an immediate cease-fire, instead choosing to promote a United Nations resolution promoting a framework "for cessation of hostilities on an urgent basis," as Bush described it, and a multinational force to stabilize the area.
Despite the display of unity by Bush and Blair, U.S. support for Israel's response, which many Europeans believe is disproportionate, is again straining alliances that have become increasingly brittle since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, said current and former intelligence officials and analysts.
It is unlikely that the European and Arab countries that have provided counterterrorism support would end their cooperation, said the U.S. intelligence official, but they could choose to pressure the United States by, for example, not permitting U.S. aircraft to use their airspace in transporting weapons to Israel.
Saudi Arabia has found itself in a particularly difficult position because of its ties to the United States. After first criticizing Hezbollah, it reversed course as the Saudi royal court warned that the fighting in Lebanon was jeopardizing its 2002 peace plan that would recognize Israel, and "only the war option remains."
The conflict also adds to a perception around the world that the United States is over-extended, said the U.S. intelligence official. "That is why I think we are seeing challenges from many directions now -- almost everywhere you look, whether it's Syria or North Korea or Hezbollah," he said.
Bush said yesterday that U.S. diplomatic efforts in Lebanon aim to address terrorist activities at the "root cause" of the violence. But the intelligence official said that U.S. support for Israel as it pounds southern Lebanon is making the problem worse.
The Iraqi government's criticism of Israel's response also shows the limits of U.S. efforts to establish a reliable ally in Iraq, said Rand terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, author of Unconquerable Nation, assessing U.S. policy post-9/11. "It shatters the illusion that in Iraq we are going to create a democratic, stable, pro-Western ally of the United States," he said, which could also erode U.S. allies' support for the Iraq war.
Al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to take advantage of the conflict, with a message aired Thursday that urged jihadis to join Hezbollah's fight in Lebanon, which he characterized as the "Zionist-crusader war."
Historically, al-Qaida and Hezbollah have not worked together because Hezbollah is Shiite Muslim and al-Qaida is Sunni.
U.S. government officials have not seen evidence yet of al-Qaida sympathizers joining Hezbollah's cause, but it remains a concern, said the intelligence official.
Counterterrorism experts differ on the likelihood of the two groups' finding common cause. Hezbollah officials met with al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, said Hoffman, the author of Inside Terrorism. In the past week, there has been an intense debate on Sunni jihadi Web sites over whether to join with Hezbollah, he said.
"This underscores the real danger for Israel and, in turn, for the United States, if the fighting is not resolved somehow soon, in that Lebanon could well become a magnet for jihadis," he said.
Lebanon has pockets of al-Qaida sympathizers, said former White House counterterrorism official Roger Cressey.
For example, Asbat al-Ansar is a Sunni extremist group with hundreds of foot soldiers, many of whom trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
"It's conceivable that there could be cooperation and an alliance of convenience to deal with this short-term issue," he said.
Other terrorism analysts were more skeptical, arguing that Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has said there is no relationship with al-Qaida and that the two groups would not overcome their religious differences.
It might not work out any better if they do not join forces, said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who has tracked Hezbollah for more than two decades and was recently in Beirut.
Baer said the "worst-case scenario" is that Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, would control Lebanon and the conflict in the region would evolve into a struggle between the predominantly Shiite countries in the North, such as Iraq and Iran, and majority-Sunni countries in the South, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Baer said.
In any case, the Lebanese conflict is likely to help both al-Qaida and Hezbollah gain new recruits, current and former intelligence officials said.
The images of bloodied civilians and bombed-out buildings in Lebanon reinforce the message that al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden has been conveying for the past decade -- that the West is at war with Islam and considers Muslim lives to be worth less than western ones, said Michael Scheuer, who until 2004 was chief of a CIA analysis group on al-Qaida.
Conflict in Lebanon has long been an inspiration for bin Laden, who has said he decided to launch his jihad after the United States retreated from Beirut in the wake of the terrorist bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks there in 1983, an attack that experts believe was executed by Hezbollah and backed by Iran.
The carnage in Lebanon is once again likely to represent "a turning point toward bin Laden and toward bin Ladenism," Scheuer said, referring to Muslims inspired by, but not necessarily taking orders from, bin Laden.