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.

Two buses blown up in Christian area

Bombs destroyed two commuter buses today in the small Christian community of Ain Alaq, in the mountains north of Beirut. Was this Syria? Hezbollah? CIA? (A Hezbollah spokesman said it was the latter.) Was it a warning to the March 14 coalition not to attend the big rally planned for downtown tomorrow to mark the two-year anniversary of Hariri’s death?

BEIRUT — Bombs destroyed two commuter buses today in the small Christian community of Ain Alaq, in the mountains north of Beirut.
Reports of fatalities varied, but ranged from three (Red Cross, security forces) to 12 (LBC and other media sources.) Ten to 20 were wounded. The first bomb was apparently attached to the undercarriage of the first bus while the second was in a back seat on the second, according to my fixer, who is trying to find more info. I’ll update if this changes.
The wounded were civilians possibly traveling to work, marking a change in the “two-year campaign of bombings and assassinations”:http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L13582123.htm that has wracked Lebanon since the killing of Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005. Before, the attacks were either targeted assassinations of well-known anti-Syrian politicians and journalists or small bombs exploded in buildings late at night so as to minimize casualties. This seems aimed at Iraq- or Israel-style terror. Random, anywhere, pitiless.
Details are still emerging, but speculation is rampant. Was this Syria? Hezbollah? CIA? (A Hezbollah spokesman said it was the latter.) Was it a warning to the March 14 coalition not to attend the big rally planned for downtown tomorrow to mark the two-year anniversary of Hariri’s death?
One intriguing connection is to Elias Murr, Lebanon’s defense minister. The buses originated in Bteghrin, the home of the Murr family — they’re the major clan there — and some have wondered if this could be a response to Murr’s “refusal last week to return a truck full of Hezbollah weapons”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6345761.stm intercepted by the Lebanese Army?
Elias Murr was the target of a failed assassination in July 2005.
I’m not convinced of that, as it would be a complete turn-around for Hezbollah, who have not (yet) turned their weapons on their fellow Lebanese — a point of pride for the group.
Also, the attack happened near Bikfaya, the ancestral home of the Gemayel clan. Several of the dead were Gemayels. Lebanon’s industry minister, Pierre Gemayel “was assassinated”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/11/pierre_gemayel_has_been_assass.php in November.
Michel Murr, the defense minister’s father, was at the site of the bombing and said it was a message for all Lebanese to come together and transcend politics. That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s almost assuredly _not_ the message the bombers were trying to send.
More likely, it was a warning to March 14.
“They are trying to sabotage tomorrow’s meeting,” said Ahmad Fatfat, the former interior minister. “They are trying to divide the Christians. … The people who are doing this don’t want the people to come together and it’s another link in the chain” of assassinations.
“I cannot believe any Lebanese is capable of doing such a terrible thing,” he added.
Fatfat also said the bombs were placed on the buses yesterday, although he declined to say how he knew that.
Obviously, Fatfat is not-so-subtlely pointing the finger at Syria. A Hezbollah spokesman said the same thing, but blamed the CIA instead of Syria.
I witnessed this in Iraq, too, by the way, early in the insurgency. In 2004, when the violence was much more sporadic and rare than it is now, Iraqis would often tell me, “These bombs could not come from Iraqis. No Iraqi would hurt another Iraqi. This must be the Israelis or CIA.”
There’s always a natural tendency to believe that outsiders are the ones doing the killing. Witness the immediate reaction to the Murrah Building in 1995. Everyone immediately suspected Arab terrorism, not home-grown white supremacists.
But right now, especially on the eve of the anniversary of the killing of Hariri, everyone in Lebanon — Hezbollah, March 14, etc. — is banking on national unity for their own purposes. “Hariri was for all of us,” as many say. Other parties — Syria, especially, but possibly Israel — would love to see Lebanese at each others’ throats. Syria could use any violence as an “I told you so” excuse to intervene again, and Israel probably wouldn’t mind seeing Hezbollah on the defensive in its own country.
(Mind you, I’m not accusing Israel of today’s bombing; I’m just analyzing who might stand to gain from Lebanese discord.)
*UNRELATED (?) NEWS:* The Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the highest ranking Sunni cleric in country, claims in a press release to LBC that he was heckled and threatened by the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led March 8 protesters as he led prayers at Hariri’s grave in Martyr’s Square downtown today. He says he was told to leave or they would burn his car.
(March 8 is a coalition of mostly Shi’ite parties and some Christians, and includes Hezbollah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Christian parties of Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh. With the exception of Aoun, they are all solidly pro-Syrian. Aoun just wants to be president and will hitch his horse to whichever wagon he thinks will win.)
Also, in this morning’s _San Francisco Chronicle_, I have a story about the “rearming of the Lebanese factions.”:http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/13/MNG62O3F5U1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=001&sc=1000 It might become very relevant after today.

Beirut in flames

hard_days_work.jpg
An opposition member cradles the head of an exhausted comrade as they take a break from blocking roads in Beirut on Tuesday (c) 2007 Christopher Allbritton
BEIRUT — If there was any question whether Hezbollah was in control of the situation here following the violence of Tuesday, the fighting today should convince those that it is not, and the situation is about to be seriously out of control.
To back up a little, Tuesday’s violence seemed to shock even the leaders of Hezbollah, both because its Aounists and Amal allies behaved like hooligans, but also because the followers of Saad Hariri and Samir Geagea refused to back down and matched slogan with slogan, stick with stick, stone with stone.
At one neighborhood in Beirut, where the fighting was fiercest, the largely Sunni supporters of al-Mustaqbal chanted their support for America (in response to the chants of “Iran! Iran!” and “Bashar! Syria!” by Amal supporters across the street.) They also, bizarrely, hoisted a poster of Saddam Hussein, indicating that the Sunni-Shi’a conflict from Iraq has poisoned the atmosphere in Lebanon now, too.
This is about to be a full-on sectarian clash between Sunnis and Shi’a and within the Christian community.
That’s why Hezbollah and its allies called off their strike after a day, despite many promises by the men on the street I saw who said they would continue the strike “for days,” if necessary.
“Do you not think Hezbollah loves Lebanon?” asked Bilal, a Hezbollah supporter I spoke with as his compatriots burned a car to block the road leading the airport. “Of course we do, which is why we are prepared to stay out here for days, weeks.”
More ominously, today’s violence shows that Hezbollah no longer controls the opposition movement it created. Months of animosity over the war, the parliamentary paralysis and calls for changing the government has hardened positions among the Sunni, who increasingly see the Shi’a as responsible for last summer’s war and more loyal to Iran than to Lebanon. In short, the Shi’ite militant group has pushed its political opponents too far.
Already this has spread beyond the capital. The Lebanese Army has been deployed to Chtoura and Baalbak in the Bekaa and there are as yet unconfirmed reports that the road to old road to Sidon has been closed. By whom, we don’t know.
Four people are dead and at least 25 injured and while this flare-up might be contained, the next one appears inevitable. And next time it won’t be fought with sticks and stones.

“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling”

Here’s the latest I filed from Lebanon. “A much shorter version”:http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/index.ssf?/base/news-10/116556152129650.xml&coll=1 appeared in the _Newark Star-Ledger_, but here’s the full account:

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s capital is once again a tinderbox, ready to blow because of political rivalries exacerbated by sectarian tensions. Increasingly, the political disputes — which are ostensibly over international tribunals, presidential terms and the legitimacy of a government — have grown into religious disputes, mirroring the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites across the region.
Which leader one supporters is often determined by one’s faith. Shi’ites support the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has called for the overthrow of the current government as being too close to the United States and cutting Shi’ites out of power for too long. Sunnis, however, support the current government because it is lead by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who is a member of the Future Movement, a political party headed Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered ex-premier Rafik, who was killed in 2005.
“The political issues are sectarian,” explained Tariq Tarqawi, 20, who is, in order, a Palestinian, a Sunni and a car electrician. He lives in Ard Jalloul, a mainly Sunni neighborhood that abuts the mainly Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut. “They love Nasrallah, we love Hariri.”
It’s a political crisis that has come to a head in the past week, with hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian supporters filling downtown Beirut and street clashes between Sunni and Shi’ite youths from rival neighborhoods. Nasrallah says his people will continue to demonstrate and paralyze central Beirut until the government resigns. Siniora says he’s staying. Where this ends up is anyone’s guess, but it’s already turned deadly.
Ali Ahmad Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shi’ite from the neighborhood, was killed Sunday night in fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Ard Jalloul. Details are murky, but residents say Shi’ite protesters apparently entered the neighborhood spoiling for a fight.
“If we hadn’t fought them, they would have come in here and broken everything,” said Khalid Hashem, 20, a Sunni from the neighborhood. He was, he added, a friend of Mahmoud. “The Shi’ites are known for this.”
According to others, the intruders chanted slogans and insulted Sunni religious figures.
“We could not bear it anymore,” said one woman in a pharmacy whose husband would not allow her name to be used. “I did not like Hariri and I had nothing against the Shi’ites, but now things are changing. This is not a political demonstration anymore.”
Both Shi’ite and Sunni partisans blame the other side for the shooting, but the question remains: Who killed Ali Ahmad Mahmoud?
The situation is so knife-edge balanced that the head of Lebanese army warned that his forces were being strained to the breaking point as they tried to cope with the security downtown and maintain calm through the tenser neighborhoods of the city. If the protests continued, or worse, turned more violent, the army would be unable to cope, he said.
On Monday, Mahmoud’s body was taken down to the demonstration surrounding the Grand Serail, the old Ottoman fortress that serves as the prime minister’s office and now, the sleeping quarters for a significant portion of Siniora’s cabinet.
The sight of Mahmoud’s coffin brought a fresh surge of fury at the government and protestors crowded around the ambulance carrying it. Many carried signs proclaiming Mahmoud a martyr. “Martyred at the hands of the government’s militias,” read one.
Almost gone were the initial political considerations that had brought the hundreds of thousands into downtown Beirut: the international tribunal, presidential terms and Shi’ite representation. Monday was a day of mourning and passion.
“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling,” chanted the protestors. “Death to Siniora.”
Downtown Beirut is a tent city, with the canvas constructions lined up below the Grand Serail, like many a besieging army has done over the centuries in this part of the world. At any hour, chanting protestors crowd up against coils of concertina wire while Lebanese Army and Hezbollah discipline men keep them relatively at bay.
For Iman Fakhiya, 29, from the Shi’ite town of Taibe in the south, this protest is simply a matter of fairness for the Shi’ites, who have traditionally been the underdogs in Lebanon.
Hezbollah gained support in the south because the government in Beirut rarely provided services to the rural and impoverished South and Bekaa Valley, the homelands for the country’s Shi’ites. And over 23 years, since its formation in 1982, it has softened its Islamic rhetoric, and now provides for Shi’ites when the government doesn’t, such as schools and hospitals, and defends them when the elite of Lebanon won’t. Even today, on online forums revolving around events in Beirut, supporters of the government often talk of the Shi’ites downtown as “scum” and dirty outsiders.
“I think my parents’ generation accepted this but we won’t,” she said. “They want to keep us down. We just want our rights. Why is the presidency for the Christians and the prime ministership for the Sunnis?”
For her, it is only a matter of time, literally. She would stay for as long as it takes, she said, no matter how uncomfortable she was.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said as she pulled the blanket tighter. “We’ve been hurting for a long time. We are used to it.”

Also, I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks, so postings will be infrequent. I hope things don’t get out of control here.
IMPORTANT CHANGE: Comments have been changed to allow authenticated commenters only. This means you will have to sign up for a “TypeKey”:https://www.typekey.com/t/typekey/register?lang=en-us account to comment. This will cut down on spam and drive-by commenters. Sorry for the inconvenience, but it’s a necessary evil these days.

Misimpressions about Lebanon

BEIRUT — Well, the oafs at Little Green Footballs are at it again. Of course, they never stopped. But it gives me a chance to point out the sheer wrongness of their worldview and clear up some wrong ideas about Lebanon. At the end of the day, we all learn something, right?

Anyway, LGF is warning that Lebanon is hanging in the balance with Hezbollah’s coming putsch against the American-friendly Siniora government. Now, like a broken clock, even bloviating idiots can be right now and then assuming they talk enough, but the LGF’s commenters of course blow it:

There should be some way to get Lebanese Christians out of there before it’s too late.

I have a couple of frends, Lebanese Christians, that still have family there. I hope they get out before it’s too late.

The Christian city dwellers will rue the day they let these savages immigrate. (not sure what this means… — CA)

The Christians in Beirut have been whistling past the graveyard.

Christians are being heavily persecuted in most of the muslim countries, with the worst in the ME. Persecution.com has lots of information about it.

Lebanon

In 1968 70% Christian.

In 2006 45% Christian.

The gain was almost all for the muslims; the palestinian tsunami.

Such comments always inspire in me a Lou Reed-size world-weary sigh. Yes, it’s all so simple: evil Muslims, persecuted Christians.

Except, it’s completely wrong.

Hezbollah’s strongest ally in its push to topple the government is … Christian. It’s the Free Patriotic Movement headed by Maronite politician Michel Aoun, a man who’s so obsessed with being President that he will ally with the people who work for his old enemy: Syria.

And the Free Patriotic Movement is supported by — by some estimates — up to 70 percent of Lebanon’s Christians. The rest fall mainly into Samir Geagea’s camp, the Lebanese Forces, a party/militia that owes traces it its pedegree to the Hitler Youth of the 1930s. (No wonder the LGF ogres like it.)

This current political fight here has very little to do with Christian vs. Muslims. Instead, it’s a fight between a pro-Syrian bloc (Hezbollah, Amal, FPM and a few smaller parties) and an anti-Syrian bloc (Future Movement, Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party). And this split in the Lebanese political society mirrors the greater struggle for the Middle East: the contest for influence between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There’s lot more to say about this — I’ve written about it before “here”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/02/INGIJJM87B1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=001&sc=1000 and “here”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/11/lebanon_hurtles_toward_crisis.php — but I’m on deadline. More later, if possible.

Oh, and comments are still fubar’ed. Still trying to fix that.

Nothing “civil” about it…

Regular readers know I think we’ve been in a low- to medium-grade civil war for some time, with the Feb. 22 Askariya bombing a huge step toward open conflict. Well, read this.

BAGHDAD — Regular readers know I think we’ve been in a low- to medium-grade civil war for some time, with the Feb. 22 Askariya bombing a huge step toward open conflict. Well, read this by Nir Rosen, who used to write for TIME before he went on to bigger and better things. Nir’s a smart guy. Here’s an early, key point he makes:

…Sunnis were killing Shia civilians, and Shia, often under official cover, were retaliating. I asked Haidar if the rumors I’d heard were true — that the Ministry of Interior had been infiltrated and dominated by the Badr Organization Militia, the military forces of the radical Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI. Yes, he said, and added that Ministry of Interior members affiliated with Badr were assassinating Sunnis throughout Iraq. Sunni officers were being removed and replaced by unknown Shias.

This jives with my own reporting on this, which will be published tomorrow on TIME.com.

Dodging a Bullet?

We may have dodged the bullet. The immediate threat of violence seems to be ebbing, but tomorrow will be the first day without the curfew and that will be a test of the new environment.

BAGHDAD — We may have dodged the bullet.
Readers of this blog in recent days know that I’ve been very alarmed about the violence going around me. I don’t live in the Green Zone, so I’m not insulated from it as much as they are, and I don’t give much heed to diplomatic happy talk. But so far today, it seems quiet around Iraq and politicians seem — for the moment, at least — to have convinced their followers to stand down. The Sunnis have made noises about coming back to the negotiating table and that’s a good sign. There also was no evidence of any conflict between various parts of the security forces, which was a chief concern of mine, considering how deeply embedded the various militias are to the police, Army, etc.
But still… The curfew is due to lift tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. Baghdad and its surrounding towns are still piano-wire tense. The potential for mayhem remains high. That said, I hope we won’t see a resumption of violence tomorrow, despite the carnage of the past four days.
It is as yet impossible to tally up the death and destruction, but many (mostly Sunni) shrines and mosques have been either occupied and rededicated, damaged or destroyed. At least 200 people have been killed across the country and it’s probably higher. I simply don’t believe the Iraqi “government’s” assertions that only a few mosques were damaged and the loss of life much less than reported in the “exaggerating” media. The track record for truth-telling by Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s “government” is too tarnished to take their soothing words too seriously.
But, as I said, perhaps we dodged a bullet on this. I said in an earlier post that we would be very, very lucky to avoid a civil war. Well, we may have gotten so lucky.
This time.