U.S. mulls fight of Hezbollah drug trade, funny money

JERUSALEM — The United States is considering an offensive against the Hezbollah guerrilla group to destroy its huge drug and counterfeiting network that exports heroin, cocaine and forged dollars to the West, officials here say.

These officials contend that drug money plays a major role in financing the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based group's military campaign against Israel and its terrorist operations abroad.

"You can trace the drugs that are pouring into America from Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Syria," a senior Israeli official said.

Israeli army Dep.-Cmdr. Shmuel Narkis, head of special operations in the Internal Security Ministry, told the Knesset War on Drugs Committee on Monday of last week that "there is no doubt of Hezbollah involvement in drug production."

"Everybody familiar with Lebanon knows this," Narkis added.

The proposed U.S. campaign would involve American pressure on Iran, Lebanon and Syria — all of which cooperate with Hezbollah's drug and counterfeiting network.

"It is important to recruit the West and the U.S. in this war [against Hezbollah]," Col. Reuven Erlich, the Israeli army's deputy government coordinator for Lebanon, told the Knesset panel.

"Hezbollah has enough money from this [drug] production to nourish the organization. There is apparently a connection between drugs and terror. This assumption must be tested in a precise way."

Sources here say U.S. security officials share this assessment, and also dispute the 1996 State Department report on international drug trafficking that praised Lebanon and Syria for battling drug production in the Syrian-controlled Lebanese Bekaa Valley.

That State Department report acknowledged the difficulty of shutting down the Lebanese drug laboratories, which "are located in areas generally controlled by [elements] of Hezbollah and would require a large and concentrated effort to root them [out]."

Israeli officials say the country is being flooded with Hezbollah-produced drugs, although the country is not its main target. These drugs make their way through Israel to Egypt and North Africa.

"Israel is actually only a small part of the comprehensive Hezbollah policy of exporting drugs," Erlich said. "The [Hezbollah] intention is primarily to flood the West and the U.S. But for us, this is a flood in light of the great demand for drugs within Israeli society."

Western intelligence sources say the drug route for Hezbollah and its Lebanese and Syrian allies begins in South America.

Lebanon imports poppies and chemicals needed to produce cocaine from Colombia, Peru, Brazil and other countries. The Lebanese are assisted by emigrants in these countries.

In addition, these Lebanese dealers, allegedly including the son of President Elias Hrawi, import the morphine base to produce heroin from the Far East, as well as from such countries as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

The drugs are then manufactured in laboratories in the Bekaa Valley and exported by air or sea or through Syria, which sources say serves as a transit station for both incoming and outgoing drugs, as well as providing protection for the drug traffic.

Israeli sources estimate the profits from the drug trade at billions of dollars a year. They say the Syrians alone rake in $1 billion a year in what has become a large element in supporting its economy and enriching those loyal to President Hafez Assad.

In addition to drugs, the Syrians, Lebanese and Hezbollah cooperate in counterfeiting Western currency. The quality of the forgeries is considered high because of the use of U.S. printing equipment given to Iran during the Shah's reign in the 1970s.