Going in?

BEIRUT — In my previous post, I mentioned that Maj. Gen Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces told me, he “thinks the army will have to go in” to Nahr el-Bared to uproot the militants of Fatah al-Islam.
“They are very dangerous,” he told me in his plush office. “We have no choice, we have to combat them.”
Perhaps I underplayed his comments, because if he’s right, “going in” would be a huge development. The Palestinians have run their own security in the 12 camps under a 1969 agreement brokered by the Arab League. Now, that agreement was allegedly revoked in 1987 by the Lebanese Parliament, but there’s still at least a tacit agreement that the Palestinians mind their own store.
That’s not really a viable security option anymore, as we can see just north of Tripoli.
Now, what was Rifi trying to say? Was he merely repeating the phrase of my question — “Will the army have to go in?” — because his english isn’t so good, as he protested a couple of times? (He spoke well enough to conduct an interview, mind you.) Was he trying to emphasize the point that there are elements in the government that are rarin’ to go get those Fatah al-Islam guys while others, perhaps Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, are willing to take a slower approach?
Or was he trying, in his own locution, to emphasize the importance for Lebanon of winning this battle? Because this is make or break time for Lebanon as a sovereign state.
If the army fails at this task of defeating Fatah al-Islam — and I’m not talking about some mealy-mouthed “arrangement” where a few of the militants are hauled in — it will undermine the legitimacy of the army as a state institution. And that will very much play right into Hezbollah’s hands.
See, Hezbollah has often said it is needed as an armed resistance because the army is too weak to stand up to Israel. (True.) But the Shi’ite group won’t put itself under the command of the army because to do so would mean that any attack it launched on Israel such as, say, capturing and killing Israeli troops, would mean _Lebanon_ was the aggressor and as such would bring down the wrath of the Israeli military on _Lebanon._
Of course, this is exactly what happened last summer, but let’s not quibble. In Lebanese politics, there are apparently no limits on hypocrisy.
If the army fails and is seen as weak or illegitimate, Hezbollah has a strong argument for saying it must keep its arms for the defense of Lebanon. Now, one of the definitions of sovereignty is the “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_on_the_legitimate_use_of_physical_force, or violence. Since Lebanon’s government and weak army would be unable to claim that following a loss at the hands of Fatah al-Islam, there would be no real sovereignty here. Hezbollah 1, Lebanon 0.
One can argue whether a sovereign Lebanon is a good or bad thing in the grand scheme of things, an argument I can’t address on this humble blog, although I favor the former. But it’s vitally important to the Lebanese government.
It’s so important that some elements of the government, including Rifi’s former boss, cabinet member Ahmad Fatfat, “are calling for storming the gates of Nahr el-Bared.”:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070526.LEBANON26/TPStory/International
There is some buzz that this will be resolved in 48 hours. That may be true, or it might not be. A lot can happen in this small country in that time.
By the way, the donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.

About that showdown…

BEIRUT — Lebanon is truly a strange — yet tasty — place. Two hours ago, I had Lebanese soldiers pointing guns at me over a traffic snafu (my driving or theirs, I’m not sure which and I’ll bet neither do they) and now I’m at Julia’s enjoying a righteous grilled chicken salad with a subtle basil vinaigrette.
But I wonder if “my predictions of a looming showdown”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2007/05/showdown_looming.php were premature. It’s true that hundreds of Lebanese troops are ringing the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared, where “hundreds” of Fatah al-Islam fighters are holed up — along with about 18,000 Palestinian civilians. And also it’s true that the U.S. and other Arab countries have sped up the delivery of military aid to Lebanon: more ammo, night vision goggles and the like. And it’s true that Defense Minister Elias Murr has said that death or surrender are the only options for the fighters. Furthermore, the chief of the Internal Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi told me not 30 minutes ago that he thought the army would have to go in.
But that rascally sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has thrown a spanner in the works, it seems. Yesterday was Liberation Day, a national holiday commemorating the retreat of the Israelis from southern Lebanon in 2000. Nasrallah took the opportunity to warn against going into the camps, saying an assault by the army was “a red line” and that the opposition wanted no part of it.
“The Nahr al-Bared camp and Palestinian civilians are a red line,” Nasrallah said, according to Al-Nahar. “We will not accept or provide cover or be partners in this.”
“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?” he added.
Fair enough, I guess. But more to the point, his address and his opposition to a military solution will reverberate throughout the army, about half of which is Shi’a. A sharp producer I know up north painted an alternate scenario than the _al-Götterdämmerung_ scenario presently being awaited.
Nasrallah’s address stopped the state in its tracks, said the producer, because of his influence among Shi’a. Going into the camp now, with half the army Shi’a, risks splitting the army while at the same time risking a general uprising among the 350,000 to 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. Without a unified army, there can be no unified Lebanon. The remnants of the military would collapse into militias. And that’s the end of the ball game. Civil War 2.0. Talk about an ’80s revival! (Only without the music, hair or Molly Ringwald.)
What’s more likely, he said, is that in the coming days or, more likely, weeks, a number of Fatah al-Islam members will be “caught” trying to “escape” the camp. The Army will announce it has caught the “criminals” who started this whole thing with their attack on army positions last weekend. Shaker al-Abssi, the leader of Fatah al-Islam, will evade capture.
And the rest? Well, it will turn out that Fatah al-Islam wasn’t quite as big an organization as people thought it was.
The army would look like it accomplished something, massive bloodshed would be avoided (a good thing) and, like most issues in Lebanon, this whole ugly episode would be suspended but not resolved.
Does it solve the problem? No, but looking the other way and seeing what they want to is a Lebanese tradition.
Time will tell if the producer or the doomsayers are right.
By the way, the donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.

Showdown Looming

JUST OUTSIDE NAHR EL-BARED REFUGEE CAMP — Just at the edge of this now devastated refugee camp, the Lebanese Army is showing signs of preparing for a showdown with the “Fatah al-Islam jihadist group”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2007/05/more_violence_and_an_update_on.php.
Trucks full of ammunition have been seen rumbling north on the road from Tripoli toward the camp. Many of the Palestinian refugees who are able to leave have left, leaving fewer civilian targets to be hit — although the toll on that end is already crushingly high, too high for a people who have seen nothing but pain and hardship since 1948.
Since 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, an informal truce has held between the militants still holed up in the camp and the Lebanese army, but Fatah al-Islam has vowed to fight “until the last drop of blood” (usually a sign that they’re getting close to the last drop) and the Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr told al-Arabiya television: “Preparations are seriously under way to end the matter. The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death.”
At the moment, it’s still quiet up here. But it’s unclear how long that will last.

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”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070520/ap_on_re_mi_ea/lebanon_violence;_ylt=Aksp6EN.OKSYmUdJcZiKdcULewgF between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group, “Fatah al-Islam”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/05/20/africa/ME-GEN-Lebanon-Violence-Militants.php, 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.

Risking Everything in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — Bassam Talal, a wisp of a man with large ears and doleful eyes, is in his element on the floor of the “Iraq Stock Market”:http://www.isx-iq.net/. Every Monday and Wednesday morning, he pirouettes between the other 50 or so brokers, nipping up to the white boards that line the wall of the trading pit. He marks 10,000 shares of Baghdad Carbonated Drinks bought for 2 dinars a share (a $13 trade), 5,000 shares of al-Hillal Water Company sold for 2.05 dinar a share (less than $7). He waves colored order slips above his head and darts between the white boards and the investors, separated from the pit by a waist-high barrier. About 200 individual investors eye the Arabic scribbles of the orders on the wall. Some bring opera glasses. They’re mostly older, heavyset men in suits, with a few traditionally dressed Bedouin guys hanging around. When the see a price they like, they gesture to Talal or another broker and point.

All investment comes with risk, but Iraq’s investors face special — and deadlier — risks. Baghdad is the prize in a civil war that rages even as the Iraq Stock Market attempts to rebuild itself and Iraq’s shattered economy. The fighting that often rages outside the old hotel which houses the bourse is marked by violence that is indiscriminate and savage. In Baghdad, car bombs, ethnic cleansing and massacres are the hallmarks of this fight. Located in Hayy al-Awaya, a Christian neighborhood, massive concrete barriers surround the entrance to deter car bombs, and grim gunmen carefully search anyone who gets close.

“During the session, I have about 15 minutes of watching the prices,” says Taha Ahmed Abdul Salam, the president of the Exchange. “The rest of the time I will be in the street watching my guards who are watching the buildings. And I have some information from the police. When I hear something bad, believe me, I will go and search around the building myself.”

He’s constantly engaged in a juggle of security and business. His refusal to halt trading for anything is a point of pride for him, a show of defiance. On Feb. 22, the day the “Askariya shrine in Samarra was destroyed”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/02/game_on.php, touching off Iraq’s latest round of violence that has yet to subside, “I didn’t stop the trading,” he says. “I let the trading go on, and I didn’t mention anything to anybody.”

The story of the Iraq Stock Exchange has as many ups and downs as a penny stock. It opened in 1992, but Saddam’s government heavily regulated and manipulated it, and often used it for money laundering. Prices were only allowed to move 5 percent in either direction. By the time U.S. troops bore down on Baghdad in April 2003, about 140 companies were trading on it and its clientele was composed of businessmen and wealthy Ba’athists who had socked some cash away. The Americans closed the old market but re-opened it in June 2004 under Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 74. The new market has just 15 companies, many of the old brokers and traded about 500 million Iraqi dinars a day back then — about $333,000.

Today — from a business point of view — things aren’t much better. Though there are 94 companies listed, the market sees only about $1 million in business each session, Salam says. Banking is the largest and most active sector, because they have holdings of hard currency and have formed partnerships with foreign banks like HSBC.

The high-point of the market, according to data provided by the economic section of the embassy, was around the end of October, when the permanent constitution was approved. Total market capitalization surged to almost $2.5 billion, but it’s since plummeted to $1.25 billion as the political process drags on with no end in sight. (Iraq’s market is the smallest in the region, with even the Palestinian stock market dwarfing it at $25 billion — and they don’t even have a real state yet.)

Although it’s legal for foreign investors to own up to 49 percent of an Iraqi company, it’s not yet been implemented because of technical hurdles, which means the flood of foreign investment predicted when the market reopened hasn’t happened yet. What local investment there is also sidelined because of a steady exodus of wealthy Iraqis and their money to neighboring countries drives a vicious cycle of violence, insecurity and poor economic performance that might lessen the violence.

“People are worried about their money,” says Talal in a break from trading. “The price drops continue, so people are trying to sell as fast as they can so they don’t lose a lot.”

There is a notional regulatory regime with the Iraqi Securities Commission, but there Salam and the brokers, who own the market, do the real regulation. They all know one another from the old Saddam-era exchange, which helps prevent insurgents or criminals from gaming the market. Such familiarity feels good to Iraqis, but it seems sketchy to westerners used to more transparent, rules-based trading rather than a system run by a bunch of buddies.

But if you talk to June Reed, a senior consultant for private sector development at the embassy, things are going pretty well. “This market has functioned very well through several interim governments,” she said. “Make no mistake: There is investment in Iraq.”

Reed, a former investment banker from New York for Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse, refused to budged off her cautious optimism about the market, stressing that great things were in store for the Iraq Stock Market when a permanent government is in place and a planned automation program is established. “Here it is truly the potential that is the most important thing,” she says. But given the archaic, anarchic and opaque nature of the market (“It was unusual to see grease boards, handwriting, etc.,” Reed says) any foreign investors are rightly worried that they could lose their shirts before they ever know what happened.

In the coming weeks, she says, that’s going to change, thanks to a proposed automated system for trading securities that will create a central, networked electronic depository, due to be completed by the end of the year. There will be automated sales, clearing and depository functions like the NASDAQ, she says. “It’s very high tech.” Brokers like Talal will be able to respond to orders from his desk at his firm, the Nineveh Brokerage, rather than navigate the IED-peppered streets of Baghdad. There are even plans for trading over the Internet.

But as the American military has learned, whiz-bang technology alone won’t make people feel safe enough to invest big money into a place like Iraq. The lack of political stability leads to a security vacuum, which leads to car bombs, which leads to further capital flight. “The situation right now in Iraq is not stable. There are many challenges for the stock exchange,” says Salam gloomily. “The investors are all waiting for things to happen to the economy, the services. I believe everyone here is waiting for good things to happen.”

[Ed. note: I wrote this for “Fast Company”:http://fastcompany.com/homepage/index.html after I left Baghdad, but it was killed because I had the bad luck of filing it the day before the NYT story ran. Such is the journalism biz. But better to blog than to never been seen at all!]

Fallujah: One Year Later

FALLUJAH — Last week, I was in Fallujah working on a story about how the city is one year later. Well, here it is.
A note on this embed: Someone asked me if I had to “clear” this story with the U.S. military. No, I did not. They had absolutely no input on this story. i didn’t show the copy to anyone but my editors and they didn’t show it to anyone else.
As for media events to show me how great Fallujah was going, I can’t speak for what CNN saw a while back, but I was shown several things that were obviously pre-packaged media showcases, and I refused to write about them — with one exception. One such event was the delivery of supplies to the hospital. This was the _first_ supply drop to the hospital since the invasion of November 2004 and it consisted of blankets and kerosine heaters. Nice enough, I suppose, but good equipment and medicine would have been better. It was also a clumsily staged event with the Marines taking their own camera people and showcasing themselves. The Marine major who was providing security took me aside and apologized because, as he said, “I thought this was going to be something real.” His embarrassment was evident.
I wrote about that in my file, but because of space restrictions, it didn’t make it in. That’s life in the magazine business.
Now, as for me being a shameful excuse for a human being — and I’m talking to you, “Susan” — get over yourself. My story was hardly cheerleading and I’m sick and tired of people who think any coverage of the military is somehow being complicit with war crimes. The Marines I met committed no crimes, wanted to get home and realized they were doing an often pointless task, a feeling I tried to convey in my story. If my reporting doesn’t fit your preconceived notions of what’s happening, tough. I’m right and you’re not. Referencing Dahr Jamal, who came over here with an agenda to “document atrocities,” is _not_ journalism — it’s activism. And if that’s what you want, go to another damn blog.