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.

Strange doings in Tripoli

TRIPOLI — What the heck is going on up here? That seems to be the big question at the moment. Last night around 9 p.m., fighting started up again between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam. This prompted speculation that the push against the jihadi group had come, and I raced back up to Tripoli from my spot of being stuck in a checkpoint just outside Beirut. (The capital is locked down after three bombs this week, so security is tight.)
Atop the building where the television crews have set up, the owner of the building — a tightly wound guy in the best of times — carried around a Kalashnikov and threatened to shoot anyone who turned on their television lights.
In the darkness, you couldn’t see who was who, and a rumor — goosed, apparently by Lebanese military intelligence — swept through the gang that Fatah al-Islam had sent suicide bombers throughout the nearby area and one might be on the roof. A quick evacuation ensued.
This morning it’s quiet again. The fighting stopped around 6 a.m., and we’re back to waiting for something to happen.
My feeling is that Fuad Siniora’s government is a bit confused, as the Palestinian issue is a tricky one. The status of Palestinians in Lebanon is not a purely internal affair, but one belonging to the Arab League thanks to a 1969 agreement that keeps Lebanese authority out of the 12 camps scattered around the country. Further complicating matters, the camp isn’t empty. There has been a more or less steady trickle of refugees getting out of the camps, either on foot or in cars, but there are still about 18,000 civilians in the camp, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The humanitarian situation is growing worse by the hour inside the camp, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and scattered demonstrations in other camps have already occurred. More casualties among civilians is going to inflame the Palestinians in Lebanon — an already seething people who make up about 10 percent of Lebanon’s population. Sultan Abu Aynan, the head of Lebanon’s branch of Fatah — the main group in the PLO — has warned of a general uprising among the Palestinians could occur. Other Arab governments have also expressed concern over the casualties (even while they pledge a rush shipment of weapons to the Lebanese army.)
So a long siege is untenable to the Palestinians and Arab governments around the region. But leaving Fatah al-Islam alone is equally untenable to the Lebanese government. Going into the camp, no mater how carefully, will result in horrific casualties among both the Palestinians and the Lebanese army, perhaps the only state institution almost widely admired by all of Lebanon’s quarreling confessional groups. Further complicating matters, members of the opposition, led by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, camped out in downtown since Dec. 1, have started making political hay out of this situation by accusing the U.S.-backed government of incompetence and dithering — charges which aren’t entirely untrue.
I mention the various backers because solving the problem of Fatah al-Islam has implications far beyond the borders of Lebanon. While mass casualties on the army’s side would be bad, in Lebanon, the fear of the “other” overrides all. It’s highly unlikely Siniora’s political allies in the Christian and Druze camps would desert him no matter how bad a military assault might be.
(On a side note, Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, urged his supporters — of which there are many in this conservative Sunni area — to help the army. Allegedly, some have taken that to heart because I’ve heard stories from Palestinians who say Future Movement followers are shooting into the camp at anything that moves. How do they know the bullets are from Future Movement supporters? Who knows, but the truth is almost irrelevant in this case; the suspicions indicate the depth of distrust between Palestinians and local residents up here.)
So while army casualties would be bad, large numbers of dead among the Palestinians would be worse. Arab governments in the region such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf sheikhdoms would be seen by their own restive populations as helping a government massacre Palestinians — and it would be an _Arab_ government doing it. Talk about betrayal! (Al Jazeera, by far the most popular news channel throughout the Middle East, “is allegedly pushing this narrative”:http://beirutspring.com/blog/2007/05/23/why-many-lebanese-are-shunning-aljazeera/, although I can’t verify this just yet.) So Cairo, Amman and others are watching this situation very closely.
This would be bad for Siniora because he relies not only on support from the West, but from friendly Arab governments who want to check the Iranian-Syrian axis. Weakening Siniora means strengthening Hezbollah in Lebanon’s zero-sum politics, which would further strengthening Syria, right when it’s facing a possible United Nations Security Council resolution that would set up the Hariri tribunal under Chapter 7.
The common thread in all of this is Syria. Fatah al-Islam is suspected of being a Syrian marionette and Hezbollah is a Syrian ally. With threats from the north, south and east, the little prime-minister-that-could is rapidly running out of room to maneuver.

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.

For those living in and near Palestinian camp, an escape

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon — Ali Said Mearbani, 64, mopped his brow and gratefully accepted a cool glass of water offered to him by a worker in the cafe. Mearbani had more reasons to be thankful, though. He had just escaped Lebanon’s latest war zone.
Mearbani lives in the village of Ard al Hamra, which borders Nahr el-Bared, the teeming Palestinian camp that for the last three days has been brutalized by a volley of tank shells, 155mm mortar rounds and machine gun fire from the Lebanese Army, which is in a fierce battle with Fatah al-Islam, a radical jihadist group.
Early Sunday morning, his four-story home was invaded by the jihadis, who forced him, his wife, his three daughters and his daughter-in-law into the basement before taking up sniper positions on his roof.
“They told us, ‘We won’t leave unless we’re dead,'” said Mearbani as he juggled cell phone calls from concerned relatives.
Three of the four were foreign, he said, saying he could tell from their accents that one was from Saudi Arabia, one was from Yemen and one was Sudanese. He said he couldn’t tell where the fourth was from.
Finally, after a terrifying night with his children huddled around him while shells fell around them, the women in the family — his wife and his daughter-in-law — went up to beg the Fatah al-Islam militants to leave them in peace.
They refused and soon the Lebanese Army was shelling his home. He only escaped because he had a friend in the Lebanese Army and was able to tell him where they were and what checkpoint he was near. The friend, a sergeant, told him to wear a white T-shirt so the Army would know he meant no harm. He did, and the Army spirited him out to safety.
Lebanese and not a Palestinian, he praised the Army for firing on every sniper position Fatah al-Islam had taken up.
“Even when they were hiding in a mosque,” he said, “the army shot at the mosque.”
Walking out of his home and through his village, he said he passed at least 10 dead bodies. “They were not from the camp, so I assume they were terrorists.”
Such scenes will be increasingly common when Lebanon’s latest violence eventually winds down. By the end of the day Tuesday, the death toll stood at about 67 people and thousands of refugees were streaming from the camp waving anything colored white.
At least 30 Lebanese Army soldiers, 18 militants and 19 civilians have been killed since Sunday in the worst violence to hit Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war, according to Army and Palestinian sources.
One civil defense worker in charge of collecting bodies, who gave his name only as Mazen, said there were “lots of bodies” just inside the north entrance to the camp where Fatah al-Islam, a radical jihadist group with an al Qaeda-inspired ideology and possible ties to Syria, was holding out against hundreds of Lebanese troops. He didn’t know, however, if they were fighters or civilians.
For the past three days, Fatah al-Islam’s positions have been hammered by 155mm mortars, tank blasts and 50-caliber machine gun fire from the army, but so far they seem to be holding fast.
As the worker moved to collect more bodies, Lebanese troops rolled up to the secured entrance to the cheers of dozens of young men from the the surrounding area. Atop their armored personnel carriers, the soldiers grinned and flashed victory signs.
Khoder Taleb, 36, the regional manager for the civil defense forces, said Fatah al-Islam had “hundreds” of fighters and that many were foreign. He said that two bodies around the corner, near the checkpoint and which reporters were not allowed to see, were burned because of an explosion, but their identity papers on them said they were Bangladeshis. There was no way to confirm this.
Another civil defense worker showed this reporter a photo of one of the bodies on his cell phone he said he had snapped and offered to take the reporter’s phone to snap more photos of the bodies. Taleb prevented him from doing so, however.
Around mid-day, a United Nations convoy entered Nahr el-Bared loaded with food, water, medicine and even generators for the camp, which has been cut off from most supplies since the fighting started on Sunday. Taleb al Salhani, a security officer for the convoy, said he was waiting for a cease-fire to be put in place before he would send his trucks in.
It was in vain, however, as when a truce appeared to be in place by late afternoon, his convoy was attacked while it was in the camp unloading its good. Robin Cook, Lebanon director for the UNRWA, said seven trucks went in, but three were disabled and were abandoned in the camp.
The Palestinians aren’t much liked by the Lebanese, who often blame them for starting the civil war in 1975. Palestinians, in turn, aren’t too fond of the Lebanese who host them because Beirut won’t grant them citizenship or allow them to work in almost 70 professions, consigning most of the 350,000 refugees to poverty.
Tuesday’s fighting continued intermittently throughout the day, with a long truce starting at about 4:30 and apparently holding so far through the night. Up to 10,000 panicked and miserable Palestinians have taken this opportunity to flee to another nearby refugee camp, Beddawi, also near Tripoli. Many hung white sheets from their vehicles or held white plastic bags out the windows. So desperate to escape that many were driving on flat tires.
By all accounts, they’re fleeing what many Palestinians call a massacre.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 people are wedged into a tiny area, barely a few square miles in size. Fatah al-Islam has taken over buildings in the area and in surrounding hamlets, often without fully ejecting the families living there. The Lebanese Army, in turn, is shelling those buildings, and often reducing them to rubble.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has said that dozens of buildings have been destroyed with the residents inside. The total number of casualties has so far been impossible to determine, however, as the Lebanese Red Cross has not been inside the camp yet. Joseph Boutrous, the North District chief of logistics for the LRC, said his men had managed to get to hospitals 17 wounded civilians on Monday and 10 wounded by mid-day Tuesday.
“We have 15 cars waiting to go in if we get a cease fire,” he said, surrounded by eager men ready to go in.
Later that day, a tentative truce took hold and his men took off. There is as yet no confirmation on the number of civilians wounded or killed.

Scene from the North

Here’s the story I filed for the San Francisco Chronicle last night,giving you a sense of the scene up around the Nahr el-Bared camp. It’s grim:

Across the street, black smog billowed over the camp while half a dozen buildings blazed. Sniper fire crackled in the air as the army pounded the camp with 120mm mortar and tank shells. Fatah al-Islam militants responded with rocket propelled grenade launchers and machine-gun fire.
Dense orange groves surrounding the camp were scorched from explosions while the army seemed to methodically lob shells on a specific sector of the camp, setting a number of buildings on fire before moving on.
Conditions in the camp — a miserable warren of alleyways and cinderblock homes housing between 30,000 and 40,000 people — are grim. A source at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in New York said it was impossible for camp medical workers to get to the dead and wounded. Water and electricty have been cut off and about 50 foreigners — many of the Westerners — are hunkered down as their embassies work to get a cease fire in place so they can be evacuated.

I’m heading up in a couple of hours. Word is a UN convoy is going to try to get into the camp.

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.