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Profile : Snatched Sheik’s Fate: A Mideast Flash Point : * Captivity turned Obeid into a hero of the Muslim masses--and Israel’s trump card in hostage talks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Staring out from a newspaper mug shot, the face of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid radiates intensity. The broad forehead, dark brows and full black beard have a touch of dash--and menace.

“A Che Guevara look-alike,” says a Latin-born Beirut journalist.

For more than two years, no one has seen that face except Obeid’s Israeli keepers. The tall, 35-year-old Lebanese preacher is no longer a player in the rough sectarian politics of his country, and reports from Israel indicate he has been pumped dry of intelligence by his interrogators.

But he still has weight. Whatever Obeid was when Israeli commandos snatched him from his home in southern Lebanon, he is now a hero of the Shiite Muslim masses. He has become a key figure in Lebanon’s hostage drama, the prize kidnapers want in return for freeing their captives. And the Israelis have no intention of turning him loose until they get an accounting of their servicemen lost in the wars of Lebanon.

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“Everyone understands that Sheik Obeid is the strongest card in our hands. . . ,” explained Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens. “We have to play this card right.”

The Israelis saw Obeid as trade bait and more when they abducted him in a predawn raid on the town of Jibchit, 30 miles north of the border, on July 28, 1989.

Then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Parliament that the captive Muslim leader was “a central figure . . . in everything linked to attacks on Israel and incitement of these.” He listed specifically “terrorist activities, distributing money, transferring weapons, participating in and hiding means of attacks, and above all approving nearly every act Hezbollah carried out in South Lebanon.” Hezbollah, or Party of God, is a radical Shiite Muslim group linked to kidnapings and other terrorist acts.

“We have grounds to assume,” Rabin added, that the sheik may have been directly involved in a series of car bombings directed against Israeli personnel in southern Lebanon.

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Rabin’s claims came amid an international uproar over the abduction that, within days, turned the hostage drama up to crisis heat. Beirut kidnapers produced a videotape of a hanged man identified as American Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins. The kidnapers said Higgins was executed in retribution for the abduction of Obeid, and they threatened to kill another American hostage, Joseph J. Cicippio, if the Muslim leader was not promptly freed.

Israel refused, Washington began moving warships toward the Lebanese coast, and the international pressures spared Cicippio, who is still held captive.

But as the crisis eased, a question remained: Who is this rural preacher whose fate brought the Middle East toward another flash point?

“When he was kidnaped, we all said, ‘Sheik who?’ ” a Beirut reporter recalled.

It had been almost a decade since Obeid had been part of the teeming, tumultuous Beirut scene, and then he was just another young Shiite trying to improve his lot, studying engineering at a local college.

But when the fervor of appeals by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for Islamic revolution reached Lebanon, the young son of a poor family answered the call. He left for Iran in 1980 to study religion at the holy city of Qom, arriving as Khomeini’s fundamentalist, anti-Western, Israeli-baiting philosophy was on the ascendance.

Four years later, he returned to Lebanon and was sent to the south as imam, or clergyman, for a mosque in Jibchit, a town of 18,000 in the heart of one of the country’s most violent areas. There, rival Shiite militias struggled for power, and Israel and its client South Lebanon Army rode rough herd on the Muslim population.

Obeid’s predecessor at the mosque was Sheik Ragheb Harb, a firebrand preacher who was shot to death in 1984. By the accounts of Israelis and others in the south, Obeid picked up Harb’s militant mantle.

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He was dynamic and shrewd--a forceful speaker, observers have told reporters--and in his early 30s he could reach the ear of the young guerrillas signing up with the Hezbollah forces.

He was also personally motivated: Shortly after his return from Iran, according to an account by British journalist Robert Fisk, soldiers of the Israeli-backed SLA fired at a group of Jibchit women who were tossing stones at them. Two women were killed, and a 16-year-old girl was wounded in the neck. She was Hanna Obeid, the new imam’s cousin.

But the portrait of Obeid as a stormy militant, a hands-on participant in anti-Israeli terrorism, the leader of Hezbollah guerrillas in the south, is countered by other reports. Jibchit townspeople insist that Obeid worked hard to better their lives, supporting the local orphanage and library. His wife, Mona, and their five children still live there.

“He was not at all fundamentalist,” said Sayyed Ali Amin, a religious teacher who knew Obeid in Qom and Beirut. “He had an open mind. He was never an important figure in Hezbollah. He only became famous because of his capture by Israel. In fact, Sheik Obeid had been suspended for some time . . . by the Hezbollah leadership because he had refused in 1988 to attack rival (Shiite) Amal militiamen in his village.”

Some Shiites in the south insist Obeid became Israel’s prize simply because he was the only Hezbollah figure within easy reach of their forces.

Which is the real Obeid? The militant but non-activist preacher? The car-bomb terrorist? Or something in between--perhaps the imam who gave religious justification to violent acts?

To the world outside the shadowy struggles of southern Lebanon, Obeid may still be a relative unknown in the hostage drama. But at least one thing is clear: He is just as much a hero to his people as Western hostages such as Terry A. Anderson and Terry Waite are to theirs.

Biography

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Name: Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid

Title: Shiite Muslim cleric

Age: 35

Personal: Schooled as engineer in Lebanon. Turned to religious studies and was trained in Qom, Iran, a Shiite holy city. Married, with five children.

Quote: “Any Muslim who leaves Islam will die.” (As told to British journalist Robert Fisk.)


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