Your attention, please?

DUBAI — Greetings all… As is obvious, I’ve not been writing much. There are some good reasons for that. First and foremost, I’ve been busy. Since November of last year, I’ve

  • Gotten married
  • Moved to Dubai
  • Taken on a new job
  • And started a new phase in my career.

Married life is great, and very comfortable. Mrs. Back-to-Iraq seems to like it, too, but to be honest, I got the better end of the deal. (That’s usually the case, no?)
Dubai is less comfortable. It’s a strange place, an odd cross between Singapore and Las Vegas without the former’s clean efficiency and the latter’s cheerful and unapologetic sinfulness. Its love of bureaucracy, lack of any concept of customer service and no real planning makes it much less of an ideal place than people should believe. It’s also damn expensive, and the era of good living, cheap housing and fat salaries is long over.

But the new job is a good one. I’m editing Trends Magazine, one of the region’s top business and political magazines, if I do say so myself. My bosses are really devoted to the idea of journalism — a rarity in this part of the world — and are willing to take on big powers here, like real estate companies. (They’re all connected to the government, which has any number of vaguely defined “red lines” that journalists cross — or even approach — at risk to their jobs and residency visas.)

But the big news is that I actually won’t be staying here. I’ve been awarded the Knight Stanford Fellowship, one of America’s big journalism fellowships, to go study the feasibility of various business models for online news. I plan to concentrate on foreign correspondence, naturally. Back-to-Iraq.com was a big part of getting me into the fellowship and I look forward to nine months at Stanford University with excitement and humility.

So my four years in the Middle East seem to be coming to an end, for now. I’ll be back in Dubai in July 2009, armed with experience, contacts and new language skills. Let’s hope Back-to-Iraq can be revitalized with the experience.

Lebanon, Iraq and other roundup news

DUBAI — Just a few thoughts and observations from the Vegas-meets-Singapore hotspot on the Gulf:

Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today writes yet another story for his growing clip collection on MRAPs, those big, expensive and lifesaving armored vehicles used by Marines in Anbar. The news in this story? Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says they’re great. Seriously. Four hundred words for what should have been a single sentence in another story. Please stop, Tom. The Pulitzers have already been announced. You didn’t win.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, I’ve heard from friends that Beirut is calm but tense. (I’m not there anymore so I can’t really report too easily.) March 14 is increasingly dispirited and hoping for a response from the world greater than simple condemnation. The SSNP has taken over Hamra, which is bizarre. And what’s up with Hezbollah advancing on the Chouf? And then whining when two of their fighters get taken by the Druze? You don’t mess with the Druze, man. And if you invade someone’s territory — and let’s be honest, that’s what’s going on — you’re bound to take some casualties. Hezbollah can’t have it both ways.

Some of the Lebanese blogs I’ve started reading are From Beirut To the Beltway, Lebanese Political Journal and The Beirut Spring. These are solidly March 14 blogs and the authors hold political views I don’t necessarily agree with, but at least there’s some on-the-ground postings going on.

All Hell Breaking Loose in Beirut

DUBAI — First of all, thanks to people for writing to check on me. The long radio silence has worried people, but there’s a reason for it. My wife and I left for Dubai back in February, and there’s not been much to write about from here. Anyway, we’re perfectly safe here. Bored, too.

I’m greatly wishing I could get back to Beirut right now. But the airport is closed, and we’re hearing that Hezbollah is attempting to close Beirut’s port, too. In fact, from the sounds of it, Hezbollah is taking the city — at least the western part of it. This was the threat, and it seems like they’re making good on it.

At the moment, it appears the only way in is overland through Syria via Tripoli — although even that road may have been blocked. NOW Lebanon is currently reporting it’s blocked by burning tires. Not sure who is doing the northern blocking, but that’s a heavily Sunni area, so local Salafis might be attempting to block infiltration of forces from Syria. Masnaa, the other main land crossing was closed by Salafists last night. They have good reason to fear reinforcements from Syria or Iran. When I entered Lebanon on July 13, 2006 to get to the war, an Iranian man came in at the same time — I saw his passport. We exchanged glances and went our separate ways.

Friends in Hamra and nearby ‘hoods report that Hezbollah gunmen have taken the streets and are telling people to stay indoors. They’re also taking pro-government people from their homes. One friend near Sporting Club reported a Shi’ite man in her (mixed) neighborhood was taken by gunmen as he was screaming, “I’m from the Dahiyeh!”
Reports coming in right now report that RPGs are hitting Qoreitam, Saad Hariri’s home in West Beirut.

Streets are being sectioned off by sectarian division.

There are reports of Hezbollah checkpoints around the information and defense ministries. Young men’s IDs are being checked.
Meanwhile, in the eastern, mainly Christian, part of the city, it’s quiet. Most stores are shuttered and many residents have apparently fled for the hills and mountains north and east of Beirut — the traditional Christian heartlands of Lebanon.

LBC, one of the main broadcasters, is showing patriotic songs on its satellite feed — usually a bad sign.

Mustafa Alouch, a Future Movement MP from Beirut is on Al Jazeera right now saying Hezbollah is the only organized force in Lebanon. The Sunnis fighting back are just citizens defending their homes, he says. This is patently untrue, as Hariri’s Future movement has a militia. It’s just not as adept as Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah has been victorious,” he said. “It has taken over Beirut. But this is a wound that will not heal. … The state of Hezbollah wants to dominate the Lebanese state. … Hezbollah represents in Lebanon an Iranian proxy. This is not a local conflict.”

He’s right. This currently has all the earmarks of a Sunni-Shi’ite scrap as you’ve been seeing in Iraq. Lebanon is — again — a front line in a conflict between Iran/Syria and the U.S.

UPDATE 1148 +4 GMT: Hezbollah and Amal militiamen have cut off the road near the Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel near where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. Speculation: Hezbollah may be plannin to take the hotel, as it housed members of parliament during the long siege of the Serail. I’ve head they’ve since left, but Hezbollah may think some are still in there, given that they’ve already taken over the homes of other pro-government MPs.
Also, the Port of Beirut is apparently in Army hands. There’s light traffic around the port, but it’s calm there.

I’m starting to think this is a calibrated show of strength by Hezbollah. Based on the neighborhoods they’re going into — mainly Sunni and mixed ‘hoods in West Beirut, along with symbolic attacks on Hariri landmarks — his home, his TV station — it appears Hezbollah is showing that it can take over if it wants to. This, in fact, was a threat made by Hassan Nasrallah yesterday when he said if the group wanted to stage a coup, government leaders would be in prison or the sea by dawn. Likewise, Hezbollah is organized enough that if it wanted to take West Beirut completely, they could. (East Beirut is another story. That’s an express trip to Civil Warville, and Hezbollah doesn’t want to be the one to fire the first shot on that conflict.)

I could be very wrong, but I predict the fighting will be over later today or tomorrow and Hezbollah will begin turning the areas its taken over to the Lebanese Army. People taken will be released — most of them. Hezbollah won’t pass up the opportunity to take care of some political enemies and people it considers traitors.

UPDATE 1234 +4 GMT: This isn’t a war, this a bitch-slap. Judging from reports, the only March 14 faction targeted by Hezbollah seems to be the Future Movement, a primarily Sunni group. It’s also the militarily weakest of the March 14 factions. The PSP and Christian parts of March 14 have stayed out of the fighting for the most part. These past two days have been a public humiliation of Saad Hariri.

Already, civilians are walking the streets normally, based on Al Jazeera video. (Most of them have suitcases, indicating a desire to flee.) Most — perhaps even all? — of the press outlets associated with Hariri have been closed down. Fighting is dying down all across the city as the army and militias take control of security in their various sectors.

This wasn’t a war… This was a warning.

UPDATE 1804 +4 GMT: Actually, I take that back. This may well be a coup. It looks like most of the government may well be capitulating to Hezbollah’s actions. We’re waiting to see what Hariri, Siniora and others will do. They’re all in a big meeting at Geagea’s place. Like that won’t throw gasoline on the fire.

UPDATE 2037 +4 GMT: Well, leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea came out and pledged defiance to Hezbollah, saying Lebanon and Beirut would not fall. By using their weapons, he said, they have lost their right to them. Does that mean the LF is going to get into the fight and disarm Hezbollah? Not likely. Amin Gemayel spoke earlier, and mouthed similar platitudes, but based on their demeanor and lack of any offered solutions or compromise, they seemed beaten to me. Where is Saad Hariri and Fuad Siniora?