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.

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

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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.