The swords are drawn
The chasm between the Western-backed government and Hizbullah-led opposition in Lebanon has never been deeper, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
Last Thursday, huge crowds turned out to commemorate the third anniversary of Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination, with the now-familiar flag-waving and anti-Syrian commentary. Sectarian rabble-rousing and confrontational cries, some of which welcomed civil war, were part of the tactic used to draw the crowds, which some 14 March ministers put at one million with a further half million held up on the way. More modest estimates were in the tens of thousands, however.
After the usual strident speeches, particularly from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, delivered behind rain-spattered bullet-proof glass, came the unveiling of a towering statue of Al-Hariri and an obelisk recording his sayings. A flame monument, lit by torches, now marks the seafront site of the explosion.
Unabashed mobilisation for the event, including billboards showing Al-Hariri with references to the need to turn out in numbers for "our" Lebanon, ensured a larger turnout than last year's commemoration, despite driving rain that forced demonstrators to huddle beneath umbrellas.
But it was Sayed Hassan Nasrallah's throwing down of the gauntlet to Israel that grabbed the headlines as across town more crowds thronged the streets of the southern suburbs to honour Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyah, assassinated in Damascus two days earlier. Israel denied the killing but had been hunting Mughniyah for two decades, and Hizbullah holds it responsible.
By declaring that if Israel wanted an open war it would have one, Nasrallah made clear that the rules of the game have changed. But after three years of political crisis and a two-month vacancy in the presidential palace, many Lebanese fear that any new chapter in Hizbullah's fight with Israel will have a marked impact on Lebanon. Some analysts predict a return to the tactics of Hizbullah's more radical days.
"The swords are drawn now, but I think we may see a softening in the 14 March position, because Hizbullah is getting serious and sees it as time to act, not react," said Ahmed Moussalli, an expert on political Islam at the American University in Beirut (AUB).
For Charles Harb, however, a social psychologist and political analyst at the AUB, the events of last week in fact changed very little -- given that both sides hardened their positions long ago -- apart from increasing speculation in some quarters about another Israel-Lebanon war. "A lot of this political rhetoric is meaningless, since many of the decisions concerning Lebanon are cooked in kitchens outside the country," he said.
Over the past two weeks, there has been increasing talk of a "divorce", with Jumblatt declaring that he could no longer live with Hizbullah and Nasrallah responding that anyone who wanted a divorce, or federalism, could "leave and go to stay with his masters in Washington and Israel". Amid such rhetoric, and given that neither side is prepared to back down on its positions, Saad Al-Hariri's "extended hand" to the opposition was not greeted as sincere by Hizbullah.
Harb believes that talk of divorce is symptomatic of a growing and dangerous trend in Lebanon to mark out one's opponent as "the other". "The wound in Beirut is deepening every day," he said. "Even if there is a solution, this rift is going to take years to heal. All this talk of 'us versus them' and an 'amicable divorce' is destructive, because it allows you to see the other as a disposable element that you can live without."
Harb argues that the two sides in Lebanon increasingly perceive each other as an existential threat, complete with stereotypes that emphasise their differences. To this is added insecurity and a sense of deprivation exacerbated by high prices, high unemployment, inflation and dwindling government services, most notably in electricity supply. "All of this puts some people in the mood for a fight," he said. "All the ingredients are there for a civil war, or at least more skirmishes, deaths and shootings."
This weekend, the latest of many street fights in the mixed Sunni-Shia flashpoints around Ras Al-Nabeh, Noueiry, Basta and Corniche Al-Mazraa highlighted the explosive combination present on Beirut's streets. Young Sunni supporters of Al-Hariri's Future Movement and Shia supporters of Amal and, to a lesser extent, Hizbullah brawled on the streets with sticks, stones and in a few cases guns. By the time the army had positioned itself between the two sides, at least 14 were injured. Accusations were traded, while some said external parties stirred the violence.
Three weeks ago, seven people were shot dead when the army cracked down on a protest against power cuts in the southern suburb of Chiah, although the exact circumstances remain under investigation.
Columnist Sateh Noureddine suggested in leftist daily As-Safir that the only way out of strife was a state of emergency in Beirut -- in effect to declare it a military zone. "The capital can no longer wait for the opposition and ruling team to reach a political accord that is becoming more difficult by the day, or for the two teams to reach the conclusion that they should postpone the battle to topple the Syrian regime and to eliminate Syria from existence, at least for a while," he wrote.
Apparently spooked, the Future Movement, Amal and Hizbullah sat down with the army and police immediately after the fighting and agreed to coordinate on the ground while ostensibly giving the army their blessing to arrest troublemakers.
Meanwhile, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa is due back in Lebanon this week and has organised a third quartet meeting between himself, Al-Hariri, his ally former president Amin Gemayel, and Aoun 24 February, two days before the 15th scheduled presidential vote. Moussa has stated openly that the Arab initiative has not been changed. Although both sides still nominally agree on the candidacy of Army Chief Michel Suleiman for the position of president, the division of cabinet seats remains a bone of contention.
In comments roundly condemned as unhelpful, the US State Department's senior advisor on Iraq, David Satterfield, said this week Washington did not back the Arab initiative, sardonically asking what that initiative was. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the main Christian in the 14 March team, summed up his side's position, saying that the Arab summit was the deadline for a solution, expecting Syria to "stop blocking" a settlement before then.
Some observers say the presidential vote has more chance this time. "I think there's a bigger push," Harb said, citing Saudi Arabia's advice to its citizens to stay away from Lebanon, Egypt's warning that it would not attend the summit if there was no Lebanese head of state, and Saad Al-Hariri's optimism, in his speech to commemorate his father's assassination, that there would soon be a president. "All these factors are aspects of pressure on Syria: 'If you want a successful summit, there had better be a president.'" Hizbullah in the past has said that even its Damascus ally could not force it to relinquish its demands for a veto-wielding third of cabinet seats.
Things may get worse before they get better. Deadly sectarian riots in January 2007 prompted fears of civil war, but also forced leaders on both sides to step back from the brink. With last week's security meeting, there are signs that this is happening again. But deeper agreement on what it is to be Lebanese, and on the nature of threats to national security and how to face those threats, remains as elusive as ever.
Why was Mughniyah so important?
The Americans described Imad Mughniyah as one of the deadliest enemies of the United States. Even before 9/11, he had more American blood on his hands than any other militant in the world. Many in the Arab world had not heard of him before because he never gave interviews or speeches, and changed his appearance several times through plastic surgery to avoid Israeli reprisal. The Americans had a $25 million bounty on his head, and he was on the FBI's most wanted list. Mughniyah was accused of masterminding the April 1983 bombing of the US Embassy and six months later the bombing of the US Marines Barracks in Beirut during the days of Ronald Reagan.
Born in Tyre in July 1962, Mughniyah grew up in a family of farmers and went on to study at the American University in Beirut (AUB) but dropped out during his freshman year to join the Force 17 Unit of Yasser Arafat, during the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) years in Beirut. He was close to Abu Ammar and learned military tactics at the hands of Arafat's right- hand-man Abu Hassan Salameh (killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1979). During the Israeli invasion of Beirut and the exodus of Arafat in 1982, Mughniyah was charged with transferring arms from the PLO to their Amal allies in South Lebanon. Mughniyah stayed behind, becoming a member of Amal under Nabih Berri's leadership, then Hizbullah. One of his tasks was protecting the life of Hizbullah's Lebanese "godfather" Grand Ayatollah Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah.
This is when Mughniyah became good friends with Nasrallah, who was two years his senior. Robert Baer, an ex-CIA official who has been tracking Mughniyah for years, commented: "This is a personal loss for Nasrallah. They are basically the ones who made Hizbullah." In 1983, he played an important role in driving the Americans out of Beirut, with the twin attacks on the US Embassy and the Marines (the first act killed 63 people, the second, 241). In 1985 he led the hijacking of a TWA airliner in Beirut. When Hizbullah Secretary-General Abbas Al-Musawi was killed in February 1992, Nasrallah succeeded him and promised to avenge him. It is believed that Mughniyah made that happen, orchestrating the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people.
In 2006, he is believed to have played a part in the border operation that led to the capturing of two Israeli soldiers, an act that triggered the latest war between Hizbullah and Israel. The State Department reacted to his death saying: "The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost." Magnus Ranstorp, the research director at the Swedish National Defense College, commented: "This is as big a blow as it gets for Hizbullah security. It's even bigger than killing Nasrallah."
Many in Lebanon believe that Mughniyah was killed by the Americans because in recent months he had been operating out of Basra with the aim of re- structuring the Mahdi Army in Iraq. He had been charged with revamping the troops of Muqtada Al-Sadr into a more disciplined military force, modelled after Hizbullah. This might explain why Sadr has been calling for repeated freezes on activities of the Mahdi Army, with the aim of filtering and fine-tuning the troops into a Hizbullah-like force. According to Time, US officials acknowledge that American intelligence personnel had been tracking Mughniyah for the past five years. The Americans have accused him (although this has not been proven or mentioned elsewhere) of collaborating with Osama bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri in Sudan, and transferring Al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003. He was also accused of having worked with Mohamed Al-Islambouli, the brother of the infamous Khaled Al-Islambouli, who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat in 1981.
Another version of his murder is that Israel eliminated him to incite Hizbullah to retaliate. They know that Nasrallah will not let this pass, and want to goad him to take action, so they can launch another war on Lebanon that would right the wrongs of Olmert's adventure in 2006. Additionally, the US media will welcome retaliation by Nasrallah and use it to blame him and both Syria and Iran of being supporters of terrorism and instability in the Middle East.