Lebanese Army on the Move

BEIRUT — The Lebanese army is on the move toward Nahr el-Bared. For the last three hours, the army has been pounding Fatah al-Islam positions with artillery, tanks and mortars. Some believe this is a softening up of position before a full-scale assault on the camp, which would break a 37-year-old precedent keeping Lebanese troops out of the Palestinian camps.
Or it might be another one of the exchanges of fire that have peppered the almost two week stand-off. Although this one looks pretty big.

Going in?

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

About that showdown…

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

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.