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.

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.

Death of a Scientist

A scientist friend of my former fixer in Iraq was shot and killed in traffic yesterday.

Some bad news of a personal nature out of Iraq today. A scientist friend of my former fixer in Iraq was shot and killed in traffic Monday:

BAGHDAD — A leading Iraqi academic and prominent hardline Sunni political activist was fatally shot by three gunmen Monday as he was leaving his Baghdad home, police said.
The killers escaped in a car after gunning down Essam al-Rawi, head of the University Professor’s Union and a senior member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, according to police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.
The association is a Sunni organization believed to have links to the insurgency raging against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. The group has boycotted elections and stood aside from the political process.
An association official confirmed the killing of al-Rawi, a geologist, saying he was behind the wheel of his car and had just left his home for the drive to work at Baghdad University accompanied by two bodyguards.
The gunmen drove in front of al-Rawi’s car, forced it to stop, then sprayed it with automatic weapons fire, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal. One of al-Rawi’s bodyguards was killed and the other was wounded, the official said.

I wrote about Dr. Al-Rawi in June 2004 for Seed Magazine, shortly after I got back to Iraq. I don’t remember if the story ever ran or not as there was a payment dispute, but here’s the story I wrote:

The scientists among the shell casings
BAGHDAD — Dr. Isam al-Rawi, a geologist at Baghdad University, sweeps his hand over a set of dog-eared journals. The arc of his gesture continues on to include a bare laboratory with a few slices of rock samples, a sagging chair and a dripping sink. The room is mean, long and narrow, with barely enough room for a colleague to squeeze past al-Rawi carrying a tray of glasses filled to their chipped rims with Sprite. Finally his hand returns to the journals and books, and he points an accusing finger at them.
“I am a university professor,” he says. “I need books!”
Indeed, he needs a lot more than that, but few things sum up the current state of Iraq’s scientific crisis more than its lack of books and journals. Al-Rawi’s most recent acquisition is a photocopied version of the 1998 edition of the Atlas of Rock Forming Minerals, which he bought in Libya on his last trip outside Iraq. His most recent journal, a copy of the Geological Society of America Bulletin, dates to August 1985. To a one, his books and journals are old, out of date and falling apart, much like the country’s scientific community itself.
Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s scientists were some of the most respected in the region and they made a good living. The country’s universities churned out engineers, technicians and Ph.D.s. They often did post-graduate work in the West and had access to the world’s scientific literature. They traveled to scientific conferences all over the world.
But things started to get bad in the mid-1980s when the Iran-Iraq war was raging; Saddam Hussein began restricting access to scientific journals. After the disastrous 1991 war and the impositions of sanctions, things took an even graver turn. Salaries plummeted. Al-Rawi’s monthly income went from about $2,000 a month before the 1991 war to about $400 a month. New scientists and professors earned about $100 a month. They could not travel; they could not subscribe to periodicals, as they were forbidden by the sanctions regime. New books were too expensive. Much needed equipment, which was often marked as “dual use,” was prevented from entering the country. The Middle East’s most advanced scientific community was effectively sealed up in a time capsule.
But now, even with most of the restrictions gone, things are still hard 15 months after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. While scientists are no longer prevented from ordering new books and journals and are allowed to leave the country, they often can’t for the simple reason that they have no money to do so. And a sinister series of killings has terrified and decimated the scientific community. In mid-June, Sabri Al-Bayati, professor of telecommunications at the college of Science and Education at Baghdad University was shot dead near his home in the Bab Al-Athamiya area in central Baghdad.‏ A few days previously, a physician, Dr. Mohammed Abdullah Faleh al-Rawi (no relation), was killed while sitting in traffic. Their deaths are just two of about 250 university professors, medical doctors and engineers who have been killed since May 1, 2003.
“No one knows why, no one knows who,” al-Rawi says, and flicked his prayer beads back and forth.
In such an environment, there is no work on new research, says Dr. Nuhad Ali, a mechanical engineer at the university. The only money being spent is to keep up the salaries of the professors, and the only new equipment are some computers paid for with the now-defunct oil-for-food program. The universities aren’t even accepting new graduate students, Ali says. All current graduate students, who used to receive a monthly stipend, were enrolled before the war.
But not all is hopeless, two solid state physicists, Dr. Izzat al-Essa and Dr. Raed al-Haddend, says they had been able to attend the Saudi Solid State Physics conference in Riyadh in March. The praised the lifting of travel restrictions, but says it was still very expensive.
Baghdad University was also lucky. Almost every other university in the country was looted in the civil unrest following the fall of Baghdad. But American troops decided to bivouac on the campuses of Baghdad University and the nearby Al-Nahrain University neé Saddam Hussein University. Their presence prevented the wholesale looting of everything down to electrical fixtures that was going on just across town at al-Mustansiriya University.
So now the scientific community must rebuild with limited financial resources in a security vacuum. It’s no wonder there’s an abiding sense of hopelessness among the professors. Al-Essa and al-Haddend dream of X-ray machines, electron microscopes and FT-IR spectrometers. Al-Rawi wants to replace his 1974 X-ray fluorescence machine so he can analyze some rock sections he recently took near Perispike in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Dr. Emad T. Bakir, an industrial chemist with a specialty in polymers, hopes for research assistants, catalysts and solvents.
But the money is simply not there. The former administrator for the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer III was found of saying, “Iraq is a rich country that is temporarily poor.” The new government is inheriting many of Iraq’s old debts, including $29.8 billion for war reparations to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but the Transitional Administrative Law, which is the working constitution for the interim government, forbids deficit spending. All ministries, including the Ministry of Higher Education, headed by Dr. Taher Khalaf Jabur al-Bakaa, are feeling the vice grip of national poverty. The minister doesn’t even have a bullet-proof vest; he can’t afford one.
But if Iraqis are good at anything, it’s hoping. The scientific community is no exception. Fueling this hope is a promise promise from Bremer. Before he left June 28, he said he would attempt to increase communications between American scientists at universities and their Iraqi counterparts. An Iraqi delegation recently returned from the University of Oklahoma whose president Bremer went to school with.
“We hope our friends in America and England will come to see what has happened to us,” says al-Rawi.

It should be noted that almost all of the murders of university professors have gone unsolved. Al-Rawi was working to change that when he became a victim himself.

Zarqawi Killed in Airstrike

zarqawi_release_04.jpg

Photo courtesy of IntelCenter

In a crucial development, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/blog-mt/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=Zarqawi, has been killed in an airstrike north of Baqouba in Iraq, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is saying right now. Also, later today, Maliki says he will present his candidates for Defense and Interior ministers. These two stories are intricately related.
Details are very sketchy, obviously, as this is breaking now, but Maliki, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and American commander Gen. George Casey said a reliable tip on Zarqawi’s location came in and allowed the U.S. to call in the bombers. The attack occurred last night at about 6 p.m., BBC says, and he may have been betrayed by someone in his inner circle. Zarqawi’s body was identified by facial recognition, Casey said.
[ADD 2:57:40 PM +0200 GMT: Intriguing detail: Jordanian intelligence was involved, apparently. No friend of AMZ they, seeing as they had a number of scores to settle with the guy. But considering Jordan’s ties with the Ba’athist insurgency, which mostly hated AMZ, this looks more and more like the Ba’athists saw the time had come to turn in AMZ to cement the political deal in Baghdad.]
If true, and this should be a very big conditional, This is a big, _big_ success for the Iraqis and the Americans. Zarqawi wasn’t the sole force behind the insurgency, but he was the driving personality behind the _jihad_ aspect of the Sunni fighting, which has much larger influence within the Iraqi insurgency than the size of its roster would suggest. It was his connections that brought in a lot of money from the Gulf, and with that cash and influence was able to bleed off some of the Ba’athists and Iraqi Islamists to his part of the insurgency.
*Also, this indicates that bringing the Sunnis into the government seems to has worked.* One of the gambles of bringing the Sunnis in was to see if they could start ramping down the violence through tips, turn-ins and general cooperation. That has always been the central question: Do the Sunnis in government have control over their factions in the insurgency? I’ve argued here that they don’t, but if today’s news is true, I may very well need to admit I was wrong on that. Gut feeling is that I was.
Casey said they got information on the safehouse where Zarqawi was hiding from local tips, so that indicates the Sunnis have started cooperating with Maliki’s government, which means this government may hold up after all. But it is important to realize that this will _not_ end the insurgency. It has numerous factions, not all who are loyal to Zarqawi (obviously, since someone tipped the Americans off.) And it won’t end the sectarian violence, because Shi’ite death squads are still operating out of the Interior ministry and other police forces and many Sunni insurgents are not foreign jihadis. They have their own fight with the mainly Shi’ite Maliki government, which they see as a tool of Iran. Remember how happy everyone was after Saddam was captured? And remember how it just kept getting worse and worse?
But it is also significant that Maliki says he will announce his new Defense, National Security and Interior minister later today. (He declined to give their names at the press conference on Zarqawai, saying that would wait until the parliamentary meeting in the afternoon.) This indicates to me that the Defense and Interior slots have been being held open as a carrot for Sunnis to start bringing their fighters to heel. Now that the Sunnis have delivered a big prize in Zarqawi’s alleged corpse, it’s time to reward them with a big post. Will they get both Interior and Defense? No. In fact, Reuters is already reporting that Interior will go to Shi’ite Jawaad al-Bolani, formerly of the Fadhilla Party, and Defense will go to Sunni Gen. Abdel Qader Jassim.
Al-Bolani is an interesting choice, because he is reportedly a former Army colonel under Saddam and has been affiliated with numerous factions in Shi’a politics, including Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and Sheikh Karim Al-Mohammadawi, the “Prince of the Marshes,” a local Shi’ite boss in the south opposed to Iran, Chalabi and sometimes — but unreliably — allied with Moqtada al-Sadr. Mohammadawi is reliably in favor of Mohammadawi. Jassim, a Sunni, is currently the commander of the Iraqi ground forces and has worked closely with the Americans. He also was the general who advised Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991, further endearing him to Washington.
Both choices seem likely to be approved, or at least not opposed, will be supported by the Sunnis, as neither is closely tied to Iran. (The former Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr, was tied with the Badr Organization _neé_ Corps, which is still closely connected with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.)
[ADD 2:18:08 PM +0200 GMT: Going back through some old notes, I found a brief interview I did with al-Bolani in January 2005, before the first elections, when he was president of the Shi’a Political Council, a rival group to the United Iraqi Alliance. At the time, he said he didn’t think the constitution will be based on Islamic _shari’a_, even though Islamic parties are calling for this. “Democracy is a strange idea in Iraq, but democracy is a demand of everyone,” he said. “I can assure you there are many Islamic political movements that don’t want government like Iran’s. But this Islamic identity and the Islamic traditions cannot be removed from this country. … So I think the Iranian system will never happen in Iraq, and most Islamic movements agree wth me on that.” That will please the Sunnis and the Americans.]
So now we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the coming days and weeks. There will no doubt be a flare of violence thaht could last up to a week or so, but after that, If the level of violence starts to decrease, then that means the Sunnis are playing ball. Now it is time for the Shi’ites to curb their militias; that’s the deal. If that doesn’t happen, expect the Sunnis to let their fighters loose again.
[UPDATE 5:49:39 PM +0200 GMT: DefenseTech has “a good roundup”:http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002483.html of news on Zarqawi, including links to the “video of the bombing run”:http://www.mnf-iraq.com/zarqawi/video/Zaqarwi_Clip.wmv.]
[UPDATE 6:18:34 PM +0200 GMT: The story I did for TIME Magazine is “here”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1201993,00.html.]
[UPDATE 7:05:36 PM +0200 GMT: Right on schedule. Several suicide car bombs have gone off in Baghdad killing an unknown number of civilians.]