BEIRUT, Lebanon—In Bahrain, they sing songs about him. In Egypt, he's compared with their greatest modern hero. In distant Tunis, where an estimated 7,000 people marched peacefully to protest Israel's action, some of them held up his photograph.
In Muslim countries as different as Syria and Malaysia, they wave his picture like the national flag.
So far, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is the only person to emerge from the wreckage of Lebanon not only unbroken, but seemingly strengthened. As his Shiite Muslim militant group battles Israel's powerful military into an improbable fourth week, his stature in the Muslim world has never been greater.
In Washington and throughout the West, the rise of this charismatic, broadly popular Islamist is being watched closely. As his stature grows, his pronouncements will increasingly influence how the Muslim world views itself and its relationship with the West.
"Nasrallah has assumed legendary proportions," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, one of Lebanon's foremost experts on Hezbollah.
The bearded, baby-faced Nasrallah has been a hero to Arabs since 2000, when an 18-year Hezbollah guerrilla campaign drove Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon. That earned him a place in the same breath as Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president whose seizure of the Suez Canal from colonial control in July 1956 launched the Arab nationalist movement.
For years, Nasrallah's speeches have been watched across the Middle East on Hezbollah's satellite television station, al Manar. Its alliances with fundamentalist Iran, which is mostly Shiite, and secular Syria, which is mostly Sunni, give Hezbollah regional reach.
Now, as the face of a resistance movement that has tested Israeli forces more than they expected—waging tough ground battles in stronghold towns and firing defiant barrages of Katyusha rockets in response to Israeli airstrikes—Nasrallah's popularity transcends his Shiite base in southern and eastern Lebanon.
Muslims from Pakistan to Nigeria have demonstrated in support of Hezbollah. Last week, Ayman al Zawahri, the No. 2 man in al-Qaida, a Sunni group that has no love for Shiites, called on jihadists to wage war against Israel.
"Nasrallah isn't the head of a state, but a small guerrilla organization," Saad-Ghorayeb said. "Yet he has been able to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide, as well as the Arab-non-Arab divide. The Israelis have inadvertently led him to this very unlikely stature."
Experts say Nasrallah has little in common with the world's most-wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. Unlike bin Laden, the son of a construction magnate, Nasrallah was born into a humble family in 1960, and he was classically schooled in Islam in Najaf, Iraq, until the Iraqis expelled him in 1978. Nor has he advocated worldwide jihad; Hezbollah's main aims are battling Israel in Lebanon and establishing an Islamic republic in Lebanon.
Some, however, see Nasrallah's growing influence as part of a larger Shiite axis extending from part of Afghanistan through Iran, Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. The fundamentalist Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose militia fought U.S. forces for control of parts of Baghdad and southern Iraq in 2004, has modeled himself on Nasrallah.
"Some of the Arab countries, particularly in the (Persian) Gulf, are concerned by the assertiveness of this Shia axis," said Magnus Ranstorp, a Hezbollah expert at the Swedish National Defense College. "It can create trouble for the West."
Hezbollah was founded in 1982 to oppose Israel's occupation of Lebanon. Ten years later, Nasrallah succeeded his mentor, Abbas Musawi, whom Israel had assassinated.
Under Nasrallah's leadership, Hezbollah entrenched itself among Lebanon's underprivileged Shiites, expanding schools and other social programs, and began fielding national political candidates. Hezbollah went from being a mere guerrilla group to what analysts describe as "a state within a state."
He also was quick to recognize the power of television. In September 1997, Israel killed his 18-year-old son, Hadi, a Hezbollah fighter, in southern Lebanon. Hours later, Nasrallah appeared on al Manar and, in his plainspoken voice, thanked God for taking a martyr from his family so that he could sympathize with the families of others who'd died for the resistance.
The moment made him a legend.
"I still remember watching it," said Sanaa Younes, 41, a Shiite from Beirut's southern suburbs whose apartment was flattened by Israeli airstrikes in the first days of the conflict. Now living with her family in a Beirut school that's been opened to refugees, she wishes her eldest sons would join Nasrallah, too.
"He gave his son to Islam," Younes said. "It's what every parent would want."
Israel has tried repeatedly to kill Nasrallah, whose whereabouts remain secret (rumors have had him in Syria or hiding in Iran's embassy in Beirut). In a poll published this week by the Israeli newspaper Maariv, 80 percent of the respondents supported assassinating him.
"They cannot claim to have laid the party to rest without getting rid of him," said Hilal Khashan, a Hezbollah expert at the American University of Beirut.
Even if Nasrallah survives, Khashan said, Hezbollah will be severely debilitated by the end of the Israeli campaign. If it can't sustain its guerrilla tactics and its social welfare projects, Hezbollah's power will wane and people will flock to leaders other than Nasrallah, Khashan said.
"He may be the man of the hour," he said. "But it's just this hour, and that's it. Tomorrow belongs to somebody else."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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