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Prelude to a Conflagration

Dark Plots in Byzatine Beirut

by CONN HALLINAN

According to the U.S. mainstream media and the Bush Administration, the fighting in Lebanon between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese Army is really a proxy battle between the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora over efforts by Syria to destabilize Lebanon and snuff a UN investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

"Fatah Al-Islam is a terrorist organization that has been imported into Lebanon," said Saad al-Hariri, a leader of the Sunni Future Movement, a supporter of the current government, and son of Rafik Hariri. "The side that stands behind it is known, and its aims are known."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said, "We will not tolerate attempts by Syria, terrorist groups or any others to delay or derail Lebanon’s efforts to solidify its sovereignty or to see justice in the Hariri case."

But writing in the Cairo-based, English language weekly Al Ahram, Beirut journalist Lucy Fielder says that Fatah al-Islam’s anti-Shiite ideology caused it to break from the Syrian-backed Fatah al-Intifada last November.

The Syrian government is dominated by the Alawites-a variety of Shiism-who make up only about 12 percent of Syria’s Muslim population. The rest are overwhelmingly Sunni. In short, Fatah al-Islam, with its extremist philosophy of Sunni Salafism, is an anathema to the Damascus regime.

According to Ahmed Moussalli, an expert on Islamic movements at the American University at Beirut, Fatah al-Islam’s rise is a direct outgrowth of the split between Siniora’s Sunni-dominated government and the Shiia organization, Hezbollah. The latter is closely aligned with Syria, which withdrew its troops from Lebanon shortly after Hariri’s assassination.

On May 29, the UN Security Council voted to set up an international court to try those suspected of involvement in Hariri’s death.

"In Lebanon in the last few months," according to Moussalli, "it seems the Hariri group has been channeling funds and allowing weaponry to enter in order to create a Sunni militiato bargain with Hezbollah."

Back in March, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh found exactly the same thing. "American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies has allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in Northern Lebanonthese groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time their ideological ties are with Al-Qaeda."

Hersh interviewed Alastair Crooke, a veteran of almost three decades in the British intelligence service, MI6. Crooke told Hersh, "The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous." According to Crooke, when Fatah al-Islam showed up at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli, the scene of the recent fighting, "within twenty four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests-presumably to take on Hezbollah."

"The key players," in the drive against Syria and Iran, according to Hersh, "are Vice-president Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security advisor."

Hersh’s sources include current and former Bush Administration officials, and a "senior member" of the House Appropriations Committee.

Just prior to the outbreak of fighting in Lebanon, Cheney made an "off the radar" visit-no press-to Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, Hersh called the U.S. charge of Syrian involvement in the current fighting "beyond belief."
After a May 21 visit to Beirut, European Union (EU) Foreign Minster Javier Solana also said that he saw no evidence of Syrian involvement in the recent fighting.

Fatah al-Islam leader, Shakir al-Abssi, fled Syria for Lebanon when the Damascus authorities cracked down on militant Islamic groups, and, according to the New York Times, killed his son-in-law. It is no accident that almost a third of Fatah al-Islam’s fighters are Saudis. The Riyadh government has been bankrolling anyone who will join its Sunni alliance against Shiia Iran.

While the fighting has been situated in a Palestinian refugee camp, the Palestinians have kept at arm’s distance from Fatah al-Islam. "This is a gang, and only 3 or 4 percent of its members are Palestinians," according to Sultan Abul Ainain, head of the Lebanese Fatah movement. "What they’ve done is an attempt to create a rift between the Palestinians and the Lebanese government."

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah accused the U.S. of trying to destabilize the country by importing its war against al-Qaeda to Lebanon, and called for a negotiated settlement rather than a military assault on the Nahr el-Bared camp. "Does it concern us that we start a conflict with al Qaeda in Lebanon and consequently attract members and fighters of al Qaeda from all over the world to Lebanon to conduct their battle with the Lebanese Army and the rest of the Lebanese?" Nasrallah asked rhetorically in a recent speech.

According to Robert Fisk of the Independent, Hezbollah has assured the French, Italian and Spanish governments that their soldiers stationed as peacekeepers in the South of Lebanon will be safe from attacks by Fatah al-Islam. The fact that Syria’s closest ally in the region has agreed to protect EU troops from the Sunni extremists in Tripoli suggests that Nasrallah and Damascus are on the same page in the current fighting. It is highly unlikely that Syria would sponsor a group from whom Hezbollah has agreed to shelter EU soldiers.

The Bush Administration is already gearing up to pump $280 million in military aid to the Siniora government. According to an anonymous U.S. official, "Lebanon will get whatever it takes to boost its internal defense capability to control its territory."

Well, yes and no. The U.S. vetoed rockets for Lebanese Army’s Gazelle helicopters and Belgium Leopard tanks because of concerns that the weapons might be used against Israel in the future.

The flood of military hardware may well mean that when the Lebanese Army finishes off Fatah al-Islam it will turn its weapons on Hezbollah, possibly in conjunction with a new attack by Israel. The latter is openly being talked about in Israeli circles, and Gush Shalom founder Uri Avnery warns that a third Lebanon war is a real possibility.

According to Fisk, if the Israelis do attack, the results would be a "far fiercer war than the 34-day conflict last June and July." Hezbollah has apparently been building a network of roads and bunkers north of Lebanon’s Litani River in preparation for just such an attack.

So, what happened? In their effort to isolate Iran and Syria, did Cheney, Abrams, Khalizad, and Bandar ramp up an anti-Hezbollah militia that went haywire and attacked the Lebanese Army instead? Or was that the plan from the beginning: use the fighting as an excuse to ship arms to the Siniora government, turn those arms on Hezbollah in conjunction with another Israeli invasion, and reignite Lebanon’s civil war?

"The dangers of a conflagration that could spread across the country are serious," Professor Charles Harb of American University of Beirut wrote in the Guardian. "The U.S. once nurtured the mujahideen in Afghanistan, only to pay the price much later. In the dangerous game of sectarian conflict, everyone stands to lose."

CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a winner of a Project Censored Award, and did his PhD dissertation on the history of insurrectionary organizations in Ireland.