Lebanon hurtles toward crisis

A story I filed for the _Singapore Strait Times_:

BEIRUT — Lebanon found itself hurtling further toward political crisis today, brought on by a head-on collision between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs over what appeared to be disputes concerning power-sharing in the government and the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The tensions boiled over when five Shi’ite and one Christian cabinet ministers resigned from Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government yesterday and today after a new round of national reconciliation talks broke down last week. The Shi’ites, represented mainly by the militant group Hezbollah, are demanding a “national unity” government with one-third of the seats in Siniora’s cabinet for themselves and their pro-Syrian political allies, a distribution of power that would give them veto power over any decisions the government makes.
And one of the decisions concerns the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of Hariri, who was killed along with 22 other people on Feb. 14, 2005, in a massive car bomb in central Beirut. Siniora’s cabinet approved the tribunal Monday after a three-hour meeting downtown, despite the absence of the six pro-Syrian ministers.
“Our aim is to achieve justice and only justice,” Siniora said after the meeting. The draft document now goes to the Security Council for endorsement.
But whether Lebanon’s prime minister can achieve anything with Hezbollah and its allies arrayed against him is questionable. Were Hezbollah and its allies to gain the veto power they want, the could scuttle the international tribunal.
“We have been waiting for the court to take shape and to reach this day,” said Tourism Minister and Siniora ally Joe Sarkis. “If the intentions of all were pure, everyone should have participated in uncovering the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri. … We should have all been united over this and they could have resigned tomorrow.”
Under Lebanon’s complicated rules of governance, if one-third of the cabinet resigns, the government collapses and a new must be formed. The remaining 18 ministers seem loyal to Siniora, however, and seem unlikely to resign.
That hasn’t stopped some opposition figures from from questioning Siniora’s legitimacy. President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian and Syrian ally, said Sunday that Siniora’s government was no longer legitimate because the Lebanese constitution requires that “all sects should be justly represented in the Cabinet.” He further claimed that with the Shi’ite walkout, all decisions of the cabinet were “null and void.”
Siniora says his government has all the legitimacy it needs but without Hezbollah’s backing in Parliament, he will find it difficult to get any legislation passed, especially the international tribunal. After its endorsement by the Security Council, it is handed back to the cabinet for final approval, signed by the president and passed by parliament.
The Shi’ite militia has threatened massive street protests unless the cabinet is reshuffled more to its liking, a political switch-up that the group says reflects its real support among the Lebanese in the wake of this summer’s 34-day between Hezbollah and Israel, brought on by the group’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. It was a war that ended in what could best be called a stalemate, but which Hezbollah supporters hailed as a “divine victory.” Hezbollah’s enemies in the government, however, saw the war as a reckless adventure into which the group dragged Lebanon against its will.
The Shi’ite group was emboldened however, and with what the United States says is backing from Iran and Syria, has made a political putsch against the current, pro-Western Siniora government. There are many in Lebanon who feel that the international tribunal will implicate senior members of the Syrian regime, which relies on Hezbollah to guard its interests in Lebanon and to serve as a vanguard against Israel.
However, the frightful Israeli military response likely left Hezbollah more damaged than it’s willing to let on, and its enemies smelled blood in the water. This wasn’t something Hezbollah could allow.
“Hezbollah is more concerned, more weakened,” said Reinoud Leenders, a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Beirut. The walkout, the threats and the demands, he said, are intended to tie up the political process in Beirut and buy them time to rearm. “This ‘unity government’ is clearly designed to paralyze any decision-making process.”
Not so, counters Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah member of parliament but not a cabinet member. By walking out, he says, they are following in the tradition of democracy in which opposition parties don’t take part in government.
“I don’t think this is very dangerous,” he said, but added that elections aren’t scheduled until 2009 and that’s too long to wait for the pro-Syrian bloc. “Why should we wait when we don’t have any power in the government?” he asked.
He played down the possibilities of street protests, which have been effective weapons for Hezbollah in the past. “Maybe it will come later,” he said.
But with these latest developments, Lebanon has found itself back in an unwelcome role: as a battlefield for regional and global powers to play out their conflicts. With Iran and Syria backing Hezbollah and its allies, and the U.S. and the West backing the Siniora government, Lebanon’s political crisis is a another battle in the new cold war shaping up between Iran and the United States for dominance in Southwest Asia and its oil.

*Personal observations:*
The feeling here is one of nervous tension among the Sunnis and the anti-Syrian Christians (mainly Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces) and confidence among the Shi’ites and their allies, including the Christian Michel Aoun. (He really wants to be president and sees an alliance with Hezbollah as the way to get there.)
Ultimately, however, this is a proxy battle in the current tussle between the U.S.-Western alliance, which includes Europe, Israel and the United States, and an Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. This is an idea I’ve been promoting for most of 2006. The idea was sparked by the May _contretemps_ between Hezbollah and Israel following the assassination of two Islamic Jihad members in Saida and a couple of Katyushas got tossed at Israel in retaliation. The Jewish state responded harshly, with air raids across the south, causing Hezbollah to counter-strike.
I said at the time, “Iran’s activities in Lebanon are part of its larger plans for the region. By working through and with local Shiite communities, which are found in Bahrain, Iraq, eastern Saudi Arabia and stretching through Syria to Lebanon and Israel’s northern frontier, Tehran is well on its way to creating a ‘Shiite Crescent’ — a regional axis that allows it to hold most of the cards in any confrontation with the United States or Israel. And nowhere else, with the possible exception of Iraq, is Iran so well positioned as in Lebanon.”
The May confrontation settled down after a day. But obviously tensions remained — until they finally boiled over July 12, when the Shi’ite militant group captured two Israeli soldiers and sparked a 34-day war that killed more than 1,200 people and left up to 4,000 wounded. Lebanon was devastated by the Israeli air force, but Hezbollah emerged politically stronger.
Since then, they’ve been flexing their muscles and trying to force their way into position in the cabinet that would give them the veto over any decisions — a recipe for governmental gridlock that would maintain their freedom to do what they please in the south without interference from the U.S.-backed Siniora government.

Horrors of war linger…

For 34 days this summer, the Israeli and Hezbollah rockets and mortars whistled through the little villages like this one all across Southern Lebanon. More than 1,000 people, including many Lebanese women and children, were killed. Farther north, concrete cities were flattened. And then, the war ended on Aug. 14. Or did it?

BEIRUT — Thought you might like to see a portrait of the south I did for the Newark Star-Ledger. I have to say I was very pleased with the editing process and these guys gave great play for a story that I would have thought most American media were no longer following much.


MAROUAHINE, Lebanon — For 34 days this summer, the Israeli and Hezbollah rockets and mortars whistled through the little villages like this one all across Southern Lebanon. More than 1,000 people, including many Lebanese women and children, were killed. Farther north, concrete cities were flattened. And then, the war ended on Aug. 14.
Or did it?
Nearly two months after a fragile cease-fire was announced and nine days after Israeli promised it had withdrawn the last of its troops from Lebanon, citizens in these southern villages are skeptical. And angry.

You will have to enter some demographic information to see the whole story, but it’s not too odious a requirement.

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War’s Deadly Aftermath

According to the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre Southern Lebanon (MACCSL), there are up to 1 million of the tiny but deadly unexploded munitions littering the south, many of them American made. As of Sept. 21, 90 people have been wounded, and 14 killed, according to center spokeswoman Dalya Farran in Tyre, the headquarters for the center.

An unexploded cluster bomb lies in a field near a private house in Majd es-Slim, southern Lebanon. It’s about the size of a D-cell battery.
(c) 2006 Chris Allbritton, all rights reserved.
MAJD ES-SLIM, Southern Lebanon — Ali Herz didn’t think he had anything to worry about when he went to check on his neighbor’s house in the southern town of Majd es-Slim. After all, the cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel was two days old and it seemed to be holding.
But as he pushed open the heavy black iron gate to enter the garden that morning, something happened. A sharp explosion threw him backward as shrapnel peppered his legs, face and chest. Conscious but in pain, he started to cry out for help to anyone in the area.
“I thought that my legs might have been cut off and I felt something had been knocked out of my mouth,” he said almost a month later as he sat in his parents’ home. He suffered a wound to his head and he couldn’t open his eyes, “because of the blood.”
Herz, 26, a mechanic, had stumbled across what may be the biggest danger facing residents of southern Lebanon now that the war is over: unexploded cluster bombs. According to the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre Southern Lebanon (MACCSL), there are up to 1 million of the tiny but deadly unexploded munitions littering the south, many of them American made. Herz was one of the lucky ones. As of Sept. 21, in addition to Herz, 89 people have been wounded, and 14 killed, according to center spokeswoman Dalya Farran in Tyre, the headquarters for the center.
Cluster bombs work by launching a container of sub-munitions or “bomblets” against a target. When the container-which can be delivered either via airplane, artillery or rocket-bursts open in air, dozens or hundreds of smaller sub-munitions are scattered over a wide area. A ribbon attached to the arming pin deploys, both stabilizing the bomblet and arming it. When it strikes the ground, the trigger slams into the detonator like a firing pin on a pistol, causing the bomblet to explode. In some cases, a shaped charge in the bottom, like a miniature version of what is found in the IEDs in Iraq, increases the lethality of the bomblet.
Most of the cluster bomblets identified so far have been American made, Farran said. The munitions include American m42s, m77s, m85s and Chinese-made MZD-2s. Some of the m85 munitions are Israeli copies of American designs, she added, but she wasn’t sure of the numbers.
A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces said, when asked to comment on Israeli use of cluster bombs, “All the weapons and munitions used by the IDF are legal under international law and their use conforms with international standards.”
He declined to comment further.
Although there is no international ban on cluster weapons in general, the United States has strict rules about the use of its cluster munitions against civilian targets as laid out by the Arms Export Control Act. Additionally, the U.S. and Israel reportedly have secret agreements about their use, according to a report in the New York Times. The State Department has opened an investigation into whether the use of cluster bombs by the Israelis violates either the AECA or the secret agreements.
“What we’re doing is seeking more information regarding alleged improper use of cluster munitions by the Israelis,” said Nancy Beck, a department spokeswoman. “Based on the information that we gather we will take appropriate measures, if required by the Arms Export Control Act.”
The IDF spokesman also declined to comment about the State Department investigation.
While the investigation is ongoing, a shipment of M-26 artillery rockets-cluster weapons-has been held up, according to the New York Times.
Since 1976, Israel has been the single biggest recipient of American foreign aid, according to the World Policy Institute in New York. From 2001-2005, Israel received $10.5 billion in Foreign Military Financing- congressionally appropriated grants given to foreign governments to finance the purchase of American-made weapons, services and training-and $6.3 billion worth of direct U.S. arms sales.
“Being able to purchase arms from the United States, at least under U.S. law, is not a right,” said another State Department official who requested anonymity in order to discuss the investigation. “If we find that that these weapons are not used for the appropriate purposes, the U.S. may decide not to sell or provide weapons in the future.”
In 1982, Congress cut off the sale of cluster bombs to Israel, following an inquiry that showed they had been improperly used against civilian targets in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that year. President Reagan lifted the ban six years later.
It was these mines and unexploded munitions left over from the Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982, as well as those planted by various warring factions in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, that MACCSL was formed to deal with. “But after the war, we discovered we had a huge problem with cluster bombs,” said the U.N.’s Farran.
Despite the IDF’s official statement, there are signs that some within the Israeli military establishment have had second thoughts about the use of the weapons. In an article in Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading left-leaning daily newspaper, an unnamed commander in the IDF’s MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) unit expressed regret at the use of the cluster bombs.
“In Lebanon, we covered entire villages with cluster bombs,” the commander is quoted as saying. “What we did there was crazy and monstrous.”
In the closing days of the war, he said, his unit launched up to 1,800 cluster rockets into southern Lebanon containing up to 1.2 million bomblets. The U.N. also estimates that another 32,000 artillery shells with cluster munitions were fired, adding more unexploded bomblets to the area. An unknown number of cluster bombs were dropped from the air. Farran saiid more than 1 million unexploded bomblets could still be on the ground.
And that’s one of the main problems. No one is really sure just how many strikes there were — “Each day the new targets are adding up,” said Farran.
As of Sept. 26, survey and emergency ordnance disposal teams had found 590 confirmed cluster bomb strikes, she said. A single strike could be one attack on a house or a village or area.
The official failure rate of the bomblets is 10 percent, said Farran, which means that 1 in 10 bomblets will fail to explode on impact but remain armed. However, she said the survey and emergency ordnance disposal teams had found that almost 40 percent of the recovered bomblets had failed. Taking the numbers from the IDF, that means there are still up to 480,000 unexploded bomblets from the IDF’s rockets, she said. And that doesn’t include cluster bombs dropped from airplanes or fired from artillery.
Those on the ground doing the dangerous job of clearing the bomblets agree.
“I’ve never seen so much like this,” said Magnus Bengtsson, the supervisor on an EOD team clearing cluster bomblets from a neighborhood in the small town of Hanaouay, 5.5 miles southeast of Tyre and eight miles from the Israeli border. “It’s more than I expected.”
Bengtsson and his team are with the Swedish Rescue Services Agency, a group the UN contracted for mine clearing but which has been pressed into service to help with the immediate danger. As he walked through an empty field the size of a soccer pitch, Bengtsson pointed to a small, D cell-battery sized object on the ground. It’s an American-made m77, he said, which is designed to take out both people and armored vehicles, including tanks. The shaped charge can penetrate up to 5 inches of armor, and the casing is scored so it sends out deadly shrapnel to a radius of about 20 feet.
Bengtsson and other groups tasked by the MACCSL with collecting and disposing of the unexploded munitions are concentrating on the roads and homes in the affected villages right now. After that, they will start a phase known as battle area clearance (BAC) that will attempt to clear all the bomblets from the agricultural fields throughout the entire south. It’s a job the UN hopes will be completed by the end of 2007.
There is no blanket ban on cluster munitions, but the Geneva Conventions forbid their use against civilian targets. When asked if he had seen any evidence that Hezbollah had been firing Katyusha rockets from Hanaouay and drawing Israeli fire, Bengtsson, who served in the Swedish army in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq as a demolitions expert, shook his head no.
Residents of the south are grateful to the UN and its EOD teams, but they worry that a delay in getting to all the bomblets will lead to the loss of tobacco and olive harvests, the mainstay crops of the south.
“We hope they can clear the fields because we rely on them,” said Ali’s mother, Mariam Herz. “We lost the season for the tobacco … and we had a few cows that were killed.”
Today, Ali Herz walks slowly with a limp, and when he shows his legs and chest, the shrapnel wounds are so numerous he looks like he suffers from chicken pox. He still has two pieces of shrapnel in his left thigh, he said, and he has to put cushions between his knees in order to sleep. He cannot work because he has to get under cars, something his injuries prevent him from doing.
Still, he worries about others and the remaining bombs. “After I hear an explosion,” he said, “I want to go and see if anyone’s been hurt because I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through.”

(c) 2006 Chris Allbritton All Rights Reserved.

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Tales from the South, sort of…

TYRE — Greetings everyone. I’m in Tyre at the moment, about as close to the front line as you can get if you’re not an active fighter. The growl of Israeli jets overhead is constant, as is the whine of the surveillance drones. Every morning since I’ve been here, I’ve heard the thump-thump sound of the pamphlets being dropped by jets.
To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.
Most villages across the south are now inaccessible because the Israelis have turned many of the roads around the cities into kill zones. “Two ambulances were hit Sunday night”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/25/MNGJCK4N0A1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=001&sc=1000. Last night, the Israelis hit the United Nations post at Khiam, site of an infamous prison run by Israel’s proxy army during its occupation, the Southern Lebanese Army.
With all that, I’d like to provide some links to recent stories I’ve done. My internet connection is very bad here, and I’m unable to get online much. My apologies. I’m also not able to get the larger story, as my access to the wires and what’s happening is limited. But here they are:
* “War with Israel helps bridge sectarian divide”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/23/MNG98K42651.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=002&sc=420
* “Road to Nowhere”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1218556,00.html
* “Fleeing Bint Jbail”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1218838,00.html
* “Hezbollah Nation”:http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1218049,00.html
More later, inshallah. I am well, and Tyre would be beautiful under better conditions.

Bombs and Politics

BEIRUT — Why, oh, why do people with access to really big bombs continue to think they can change people’s loyalties by dropping those big bombs on their homes and families?
Israel’s strategy in Lebanon is pretty clear now: Make the pain of “supporting” or “harboring” Hezbollah so great that the Lebanese will deal with the group. That was also the idea behind the attack on Gaza and Hamas as well as the so-called Bush Doctrine — the U.S. will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them. It’s also the hot air for the trial balloon often floated in D.C. regarding regime change in Iran: Bomb the mullahs and watch the pro-American youth embrace the _Pax Americana_!
Except… it almost never works. I mean, George Bush was considered barely qualified to make coffee at the White House in August 2001. (Remember that?) And then, boom, 9/11 hit and he’s suddenly the best wartime leader since Churchill. Was there a rethinking of American policy on the part of the masses and a call for changing those policies? Or even, dare I say it, removing the Bush Administration from office because the consequences of having a nincompoop in office had grown too painful? Hell, no! Americans rallied around the flag and the leader. In fact, the only incident that I can think of that involved bombs leading to the victims blaming their leaders and punishing them was … Madrid.
So why do Washington and Tel Aviv think Arabs would react any different? (Maybe a bit of cultural chauvinism?) Did the Iraqis turn on Saddam Hussein through 13 years of sanctions? No. Did the Palestinians turn on Fatah after the start of the 2001 _intifada_? That’s a negative. The Gazans this year? Nope. Will the Lebanese turn on Hezbollah? Not likely, and certainly not in the short term.
Another reason the “bomb ’em and they’ll love us” strategy won’t work here is that Hezbollah is not the PLO. An historical digression, if you’ll allow me: Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 in two attempts to dislodge the PLO from Lebanon, where it was using the country launch attacks on the Jewish state. The Palestinians had developed a state-within-a-state in the south, which was often called “Fatah-land.” (Sound familiar?) In 1983, Israel finally pushed the PLO out and Yasser Arafat and his followers fled to Tunisia. Still, the Lebanese war dragged on for another seven years as various militias — some supported by Israel, others by Syria and Iran — before finally ending in 1990 from exhaustion. Lebanon was shattered and Israel ended up occupying parts of the country for 22 years, spawning Hezbollah.
This is important. Hezbollah was not _started_ by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It was _organized_ by them out of the disparate Shi’ite groups that popped up to resist the Israeli occupation. Iran helped merge them together, but they’re a Lebanese creation.
This means Hezbollah is an indigenous group, not a foreign body like the PLO was. Saying that Lebanon “harbored” Hezbollah is like saying the United States “harbors” white supremacists or anti-government militias. You probably hate them and despise their goals, but you can’t they’re alien parasites on American society. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, they’re an integral if extreme part of the political and social fabric. Ending of expelling Hezbollah is akin to amputation rather than lancing a boil.
I’ve been in love with Lebanon since 2004 when I took a flat here and began immersing myself in the place whenever I could take a break from Iraq. In March, I settled here for the foreseeable future. I have a wide variety of friends, not just upper-crust Christians, and while I’m not a polling company, I think I have a decent grasp of the zeitgeist here.
Before this damn war, Hezbollah was losing support. It wasn’t draining, but it was ebbing. The political process was stuttering along, but it was moving. Many people here hated Hezbollah… Many people also loved it. The society was split but there was a consensus the problem had to be settled judiciously and politically because no one wanted another civil war.
When the first Israeli bombs fell, some Shi’ites even blamed Hezbollah. I met a guy in the southern suburbs last Saturday, just four days after things started. He’s a Shi’ite from Nabatiyeh in the south and hated Hezbollah. He thought they’d screwed up big-time. These days, when I talk to him, he says he hopes Hezbollah rips the Israelis apart. Another friend of mine, one of those upper-crust Christians, told me last night that as much as he hates Hezbollah, he hates the Israelis even more now.
The Lebanese are closing ranks in the face of an external threat, just like people all over the world do — with the exception of Spain, I guess. They’re no different from anyone else, and the same thing happened in the initial days of Iraq. The same pattern would play out in Iran, too, if this war gets that far east. The West has no monopoly on unity, patriotism and nationalism.
That said, unity rarely lasts. In the case of America, it led to a polarized public where the public debate seems to involve screaming “traitor!” when someone votes for a Democrat for the school board.
In the Middle East, things rarely stay at that level. Once that unity breaks, we’re left with civil war. (See, Lebanon, 1975-1990 and Iraq, 2003-present.) And in civil wars, lots of people die and the situation that needed to be fixed is usually worse. (Does anyone think Iraq is a more stabilizing force than it was?)
Which is why it’s important to end these things before they start.