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He Walks Tightrope in Beirut : Berri an Oddity: Shia Still Holds U.S. ‘Green Card’

Times Staff Writer

One day a few months ago, Nabih Berri found himself forced into what must now seem like a familiar balancing act.

Another American had just been kidnaped in Beirut by Muslim extremists, and a reporter asked Berri what he--as the leader of Lebanon’s most powerful Muslim militia and a minister of justice in the government--thought about it.

“We in the Amal movement,” Berri said, referring to his Shia Muslim militia, “do not believe in such methods, especially the kidnaping of ordinary people.

“On the other hand,” he added with surprising rancor, “we are well aware of how oppressive American policy is towards us, and we are opposed to American policies, which provide the material, moral, political and strategic coverage for all that Israel does. We are aware of the hostile American attitude, but we always distinguish between the American individual and American policies.”

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As the remark suggests, Berri is frequently obliged these days by the vagaries of Lebanese politics to walk a wiggling tightrope. By most accounts, his handling of the hijack drama now unfolding at Beirut airport is as much a reflection of his own delicate position as it is a measure of his convictions.

The 46-year-old Berri is an oddity in the world of Shia Muslim politics. He is the scion of a Lebanese merchant family that had emigrated to the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where he was born. In Africa, the family gained membership into the bourgeois class, an accomplishment not open then to a non-Sunni Muslim in Lebanon.

While most Shia leaders are either clergymen or close associates of them, Berri--educated in Lebanon and France--was trained as a commercial lawyer. He was initiated into the heady world of Arab politics by espousing Baathism, a nationalistic and notably secular movement that now exists only in Iraq and Syria.

Holds American ‘Green Card’

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Perhaps most ironically, Berri settled for a time in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn with his first wife, Leyla, and his six children. Although the couple has since divorced, and he has remarried, Berri carefully renews his U.S. “green card,” which permits him to reside in America, and visits his family at least once a year.

Berri is not regarded as a particularly charismatic figure by those around him in Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic.

He was a loyal retainer to a dynamic Shia clergyman, Imam Moussa Sadr, who founded the Amal movement in the 1970s. Sadr disappeared during a trip to Libya in 1978, and Berri succeeded him after a lengthy leadership struggle with Hussein Husseini, who is now the Speaker of the Lebanese National Assembly (Parliament).

Since taking over as head of Amal in 1980, Berri has seen his movement grow vastly in influence and power as Soviet weapons provided by Syria and financing of uncertain origins poured in to train the Shia militiamen into a fighting force.

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Radical Opposition

But at the same time, Berri has had to contend with the steady rise of Hezbollah, a far more radical Shia group that is largely supported by and is loyal to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.

Berri embodies both the virtues and shortcomings implied by moderation. He favors negotiated solutions to problems, but it is easy for his more radical enemies to outflank him by merely adopting a harder line.

Thus, Berri has frequently espoused uncompromising political lines when diplomatic observers believe that in reality he has personally favored a more evenhanded approach.

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A good example is the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which Berri hoped to end through negotiation. Shia radicals, however, opposed all talks with the Israelis, favoring the use of suicide car bombs to drive them out of southern Lebanon. Before long, a frustrated Berri, getting nowhere in his talks with the Israelis, adopted much the same line.

In April, 1984, Berri joined Lebanon’s government of “national unity,” which was intended to heal the rifts caused by 10 years of civil war in the country.

Demands Special Ministry

One of his first acts was to demand that he be appointed to a special ministry looking after the interests of southern Lebanon, the region where Shia Muslims predominate and the center of what Berri clearly hopes will become his lasting power base.

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In recent months, Berri’s broadly secular leadership of the Shias, Lebanon’s largest Muslim minority, has won the consistent support of Syria, which has increasingly played the role of power broker in the strife-torn country.

One diplomat suggested that Syria might be attempting to anoint Berri as Lebanon’s Muslim spokesman just as it has similarly recognized President Amin Gemayel as the voice of Lebanon’s Christians.

Berri’s leadership has been severely strained, however, by his decision to have Amal storm Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps in an effort to disarm Palestinian guerrillas.

Fighting Weakens Amal

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The fighting, now almost a month old, has severely depleted Amal’s fighting force. It is widely believed that Amal would have been defeated but was saved by the intervention of the mostly Shia 6th Brigade of the Lebanese army.

Equally important, the fighting drew vocal criticism of Berri from much of the Muslim world, including thinly veiled attacks from Iran, whose proteges in Lebanon remained neutral in the clashes.

Berri was repeatedly accused of carrying out Israel’s and America’s will by fighting the Palestinians, a fact that some observers believe may prevent him, whatever his personal inclinations, from appearing to be too pro-American in the current crisis.


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