More Violence and an update on Fatah al-Islam

BEIRUT — Jesus. Another car bomb just went off a few minutes ago in upscale Verdun, an upscale Muslim neighborhood full of tony shops. I can’t tell yet, but there appear to be much more damage and casualties than last night’s car bomb in Achrafiyeh. The cars are still burning as I type. The neighborhood is in chaos as soldiers and rescue workers try to keep order and reach the wounded amid the flames. Updates as I can get them.
*UPDATE 1:* Future TV, affiliated with the Hariri family, says four people have been injured in the bomb.
I’d also like to write a little history on Fatah al-Islam. As the Lebanese Army fights a pitched battle with the Palestinian militant group, the question for many in Beirut — especially those who support the current government — is what role Syria may be playing in the current drama to the north. 
The timing, according to some political observers, is telling coming as it does on the heels of the introduction of a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council to set up an international tribunal that would try suspects in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria, which opposes the tribunal, could have pulled the strings on Fatah al-Islam, a group that government supporters say heeds its masters in Damascus.
National police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said yesterday that Damascus was behind Fatah al-Islam’s recent surge, with only a bit of al Qaeda ideology thrown in. 
“Perhaps there are some deluded people among them but they are not al Qaida,” Rifi said. “This is imitation al Qaida, a ‘Made in Syria’ one.”
Muhammad Shatah, a senior advisor to Prime Minister Fuad Siniora — whose government is locked in a power struggle with opposition groups that support Syria — also said Syria was trying to derail the tribunal, which is widely expected in to implicate senior Syrian officials in the Hariri killing, by sowing discord in Lebanon. The widely held belief among government members is that the leader of Fatah al-Islam, Shaker al-Abssi, is a member of the Syrian _mukhabarrat_ and was sent here last year to stir up trouble after making a deal for an early release from a Syrian prison. 
But one longtime observer of the Palestinian camps and Islamist movements doesn’t see Syria’s direct involvement. Kassem Kassir, a journalist for the pro-government newspaper al Mustaqbal who is an expert on these groups and has interviewed members of the group in Nahr el-Bared, said Fatah al-Islam, and its leader Shaker al-Abssi are supported by Salafist groups in the Gulf, Iraq and Jordan that share al Qaida’s ideology more than they are by Syria. Al-Abssi’s link to Syria comes from the long history of attempts by Syria to use the Palestinians for its own purposes against Israel. 
Al Abssi used to be a member of the main Palestinian faction, Fatah, founded by former PLO chairman Yassir Arafat. He later joined Fatah al-Intifada, a fake group set up by Syria in an attempt to turn Palestinians’ national yearnings to Syria’s advantage. But with little support among the Palestinian population, which by and large stayed loyal to homegrown groups such as Fatah and Hamas, Fatah al-Intifada languished. Last year, in a bid to strike out on his own, Kassir said, Al Abssi split and formed Fatah al-Islam. 
It was possibly a natural split, he said, because Al Abssi is a Jordanian of Palestinian descent with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was killed last year. Today he gets money and men from Salafist groups in the Gulf, Iraq and Jordan who share his jihadist view of an Islamic caliphate stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. 
Kassir acknowledged that Fatah al-Islam appears to be very well armed and those weapons had to have come through Syria at some point, indicating some degree of cooperation, but Syria often allows groups other than its main ally Hezbollah to arm up. 
Hezbollah has constraints on what it can do, given its image as a Lebanese resistance with members of parliament, said Reva Bhalla, director of geopolitical analysis at Stratfor, a Houston-based security firm. It is reluctant to turn its guns on the government, given that it’s part of it and it still hope to be seen as a legitimate part of the Lebanese political process. Groups such as Fatah al-Islam have more flexibility. 
“Syria is funneling weapons and men to them, keeping them there (in Lebanon) and they’re a bargaining tactic against the United States,” which is currently talking with Syria’s main ally, Iran, over a possible détente in the Middle East, she said. Significantly, she added, Iran has signaled that it doesn’t oppose the Hariri tribunal, which is making Syria very nervous that its main ally might be hanging it out to dry. 
“Syria is watching very closely that it doesn’t get screwed in any deal,” and any support it may be giving to groups such as Fatah al-Islam is to remind the United States that it has chips it can still play.     
Regardless of how the battle with Fatah al-Islam plays out, there are other groups that Syria has more direct ties with, Kassir said, such as Jund al-Sham (Army of the Sham) and Osbat al-Ansar (the League of Partisans), which are based in other Palestinian camps in Lebanon. They all share a similar ideology and all benefit from Syria’s looking the other way as materiel crosses the border coming from and heading to Iraq. 
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. 

Bombing in Beirut Caps Day of Violence in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon was rocked by violence today with dozens killed in fighting in the country’s north and a car bomb in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut that killed one person and wounded up to a dozen.

The day started with clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group, Fatah al-Islam, which the Lebanese government says is backed by Syria and shares an ideology with al Qaida. At least 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed in fighting that lasted through much of the day.

But by the time calm had been imposed up north, a car bomb shattered windows and collapsed a building in the east Beirut neighborhood of Acrafiyeh. Reports say a woman was killed and about a dozen wounded.

The bomb was placed in a car lot next to the popular ABC Achrafiyeh mall, and the timing of the blast — at 11:40 p.m. — suggested that its intent was to cause panic and fear among the crowd exiting the movie theaters at the mall.

“It was just to scare people,” said a man in the car lot who declined to be identified. “If they really wanted to cause damage, they would have put it in the parking garage.”

As the AP reports:

The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide, and police said the explosives were estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The blast — heard across the city — gutted cars, set vehicles ablaze and shattered store and apartment windows.

Hamid and Claudine Saliba, both 39, live across the street from the parking lot where the car exploded.

“In Lebanon, you expect anything,” said Claudine, and after today’s violence up north, she and her husband were on guard. “But not in Achrafiyeh!”

They spoke from Hamid’s mother’s home, which is two doors down from their own, and the devastation in the house was near total. Graceful Ottoman windows jambs were ripped from the walls and heavy doors torn from their hinges. Luckily for Hamid, his mother had left the house on vacation two days previously, so there were no injuries.

This is the latest in a string of car bombs that many in Lebanon suspect is aimed at destabilizing the country so that Syria can re-impose its hegemony it enjoyed for 29 years.

Initially welcomed as protectors during Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, Syrian maintained an iron control over Lebanon after the war ended, effectively occupying it from 1990-2005, when it withdrew its troops. The withdrawal was forced upon Damascus following massive popular protests, which the Lebanese call the “independence uprising,” in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blame Syria for that killing and the waves of violence that have followed.

Lebanon has been on a knife’s edge since December of last year when Hezbollah and its allies, who support Syria, pulled out of the government in protest over legislation forming an international tribunal that would handle the Hariri case. Syria and its supporters vehemently oppose the tribunal, forcing the Lebanese government to petition the United Nations to impose the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning it does not require Lebanese parliamentary approval. The tribunal is widely expected to indict high-level members of the Syrian regime, including the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Tonight’s bombing — which may or may not be tied to the fighting in the north — could be seen as a message that Syria’s agents in Lebanon are prepared to unleash more violence if the tribunal is imposed on Lebanon.