New US diplomatic tangle
Beirut and Washington bicker over Hizbullah and tense relations with Syria. Mohalhel Fakih reports from Beirut
Lebanon has refused to caution Hizbullah for denying access to a US diplomatic convoy driving on a south Lebanese road towards the Lebanese-Israeli border last Friday. "The convoy attempted to access a restricted area," commented Lebanese Minister of Information Michel Smaha, after the US made a formal complaint to Beirut. Armed Hizbullah fighters had blocked four US vehicles carrying military and political attaches and their bodyguards on a road leading to Labounneh Hill, about two kilometres from the Lebanese- Israeli border.
The Shi'ite group, which led the resistance struggle against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and features high on the US list of terrorist organisations, rejected a formal American demand for an inquiry into the incident. The demand came hot on the heels of a Washington proposal to impose sanctions on Syria, a move analysts in Lebanon say would inflict "tremendous harm" on Lebanon.
"We have formally protested this action to the government of Lebanon, and the Lebanese authorities have promised an immediate and thorough investigation of the incident," said Adam Ereli, a US State Department spokesman. He told reporters that Washington expects a "prompt response" from the Beirut government, including "an assurance that appropriate measures" will be taken to prevent such an incident from happening again.
In a radio interview after the incident, however, Smaha remained non-committal, and said the convoy had received permission to visit UNIFIL officials in Naqoura village, but not to travel along the route leading to the border. Hizbullah is largely in charge of security along this section of the border, and armed fighters monitor several checkpoints along the so-called "Blue Line", demarcated by the UN after Israel withdrew from the region in 2000.
Mohamed Fneish, a member of parliament (MP) and Hizbullah member, denounced US calls for an inquiry, describing them as "audacious". He said that providing access to Labbouneh constitutes a "threat to national security" and that the motorcade was travelling on a "military" road.
Abdallah Kasir, also an MP and Hizbullah member, said any visits to the border should be coordinated with the authorities because of tensions in the Middle East, which have increased since the Israeli strike on what it claimed to be an Islamic Jihad training camp near Damascus on 5 October. The raid was followed by incidents on the border in which an Israeli soldier and a Lebanese child were killed in unexplained circumstances.
"There is a danger of the tension increasing ... and the resistance is in a state of constant readiness," said Kasir, whose group spearheaded a war against Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon until their withdrawal.
According to the Daily Star newspaper and the Beirut edition of the Herald Tribune, the Labbouneh incident served to highlight "misunderstandings" between Lebanon and the US. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Jamil Mroueh, a prominent analyst, said the affair highlighted a "state of serious misunderstanding", which extends beyond US- Lebanese ties, and which encompasses differences over the Iraq war, pressure on Syria, and Hizbullah. In the meantime, Minister of Information Smaha says the incident will not affect bilateral relations and dialogue regarding the event is continuing.
Several days before Washington made the request for an inquiry into the south Lebanese incident, Lebanon had condemned a US congressional bill which called on Syria to withdraw its troops from the country. "The US Congress can vote on anything it wants, but the presence in Lebanon of the Syrian military is an issue that only Lebanon can raise," commented Smaha.
Last Wednesday, a majority of US House of Representatives members voted in favour of The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, which will impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria. The US accuses Syria of supporting terrorism and "occupying" Lebanon. The bill still requires a Senate vote and approval by President George W Bush, who is now believed to back the draft law after months of opposition.
After the vote, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud urged Washington to "free itself of the Zionist lobbies", blaming pro-Israeli pressure groups on Capitol Hill for the bill's passage, which Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said constitutes "a green light for new Israeli aggression against Syria". Speaking out in condemnation of the bill, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said it would "harm" Lebanon.
Jamil Mroueh agrees. "The squeeze on Syria will have a detrimental effect on Lebanon too," he told the Weekly. He said that an economic reform programme, spearheaded by Hariri, "could evaporate" if the sanctions are passed. The government has been counting on a reform agenda to reduce the country's debt which totals US$30 billion.
Mroueh also said the sanctions and Middle East turmoil could prompt the Syrians to back an extension of the head of state's term of office after it runs out next year. Such a move is likely to have political repercussions in Beirut in terms of a power struggle between Lahoud and Hariri. The president has yet to announce his intentions.
Mroueh does not expect any serious dialogue to take place between the US and Lebanon, Syria and Hizbullah. He said the conditions "are not there" and [these Middle Eastern countries] do "not know what they want", while the US and Israel are not talking sense. "Everybody is in a non-starter position now," Mroueh argues.