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Story Publication logo February 9, 2003

Saddam Has Few Backers in Lebanon



The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.

Radical Islamic groups in Lebanon draw a distinction between their cause and that of Iraq or al-Qaida. At the same time, they decry U.S. support for Israel and say the United States may go too far in trying to oust Saddam Hussein.

"Death to Israel" was the line that brought the biggest cheers at a rally Friday night of 5,000 supporters of the militant Middle Eastern organization that some American analysts consider more dangerous than Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

But the main message of the evening at the meeting of the radical Shiite group Hezbollah was one of relative moderation. It is now urgently up to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, said Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, to avert a war that would be "among the greatest catastrophes in all of Arab history." Nasrallah called on Saddam to meet with Iraqi opposition leaders, to step down in favor of a government of reconciliation and to declare immediately to the United Nations whatever weapons of mass destruction he still has.

"We must do everything in our power to prevent this war," Nasrallah said, sounding more like the leader of a moderate Persian Gulf emirate than the head of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

Leaders of some of the other radical groups based in Lebanon were more openly hostile toward the United States, in interviews last week, with several vowing to target Americans if the United States attempts a prolonged military occupation in Iraq. Each of the groups rejected its terrorist label. All four -- Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Fatah wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization -- specifically repudiated the terrorist activities of al-Qaida.

All of the group leaders stressed a common theme -- that maintaining s olidarity with the Palestinian cause against Israel is more important to them than getting embroiled in the U.S.-Iraq dispute.

The stakes are especially high in Lebanon. Vacated by Israeli occupation troops just three years ago, Lebanon is also host to an unhappy population of Palestinian refugees, some 217,000 strong, that has lived there for 55 years without ever winning the most basic political or economic rights.

Amid all those stresses, says Sheikh Mohamed Kawtharami, one of the founders of Hezbollah and a senior member of its politburo, "We have no intention of becoming a pawn on Saddam Hussein's chessboard."

Terrorists or liberators?

Israeli and U.S. officials in recent months have reported a major buildup in arms along the Israeli-Lebanese border, in areas that have been largely under the control of Hezbollah since 2000, when Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon. The arms are said to include thousands of new rockets, shipped from Iran via Syria, with ranges long enough to reach the Israeli city of Haifa and important industrial sectors further south.

Lebanese officials discount the reports, as does Hezbollah itself. They note that Israel could easily neutralize the threat of rockets on the border. They say the claims are surfacing now because Israel wants an excuse for action of its own, either for new cross-border attacks or for expelling thousands of Palestinians to Lebanon and other neighboring Arab countries.

"What are the weapons of the Arabs, either regular army or guerrillas, compared to the U.S.-equipped Israeli Defense Force," said Madwan Hamadi, a senior member of the Lebanese government. "The Israeli arsenal ranges from the super-sophisticated up to nuclear weapons. The Arabs have what we call the weapons of the poor -- some short-range Katyusha rockets and some land mines, not much more. They are defensive weapons. No one has any offensive capability."

Nasib Lahoud, a Christian opposition party member of parliament and former ambassador to the United States, also dismissed the reports of new Hezbollah stockpiles in southern Lebanon. He said another common U.S. view -- that Hezbollah and Hamas survived only with the help of Syria and Iran -- ignored the broad base that each had built within Lebanon itself.

"Contrary to popular belief it's not a Syrian or Iranian puppet," Lahoud said of Hezbollah. "It has a life of its own. It does rely on support from Syria and Iran, yes, but it's not a matter of someone someplace else simply pressing buttons. Hezbollah over the years has gained a lot of credibility, because it was highly instrumental in liberating the south."

Hezbollah guerrillas inflicted heavy casualties on the Israeli forces that occupied southern Lebanon. When the Israelis finally pulled out, unilaterally and with the abandonment of much equipment as well as their Lebanese allies, many said the victory was virtually Hezbollah's alone.

The movement -- Hezbollah means "party of God," in Arabic -- has established itself as a force in Lebanese civilian life as well, with three hospitals, nine schools, assorted businesses and charities, not to mention 12 elected members of parliament. The guerrilla activities for which Hezbollah is known in the West remain a shadowy, sub-surface operation but to many Lebanese the organization is about as controversial as Rotarians.

Is it a terrorist organization?

The State Department has long said yes, linking Hezbollah to a string of terrorist attacks stretching back to the 1983 truck-bomb explosion near the Beirut airport that killed 241 U.S. Marines. Hezbollah militants were implicated in the killing of CIA agents in Lebanon during the 1980s and the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 in 1985.

Hezbollah officials deny responsibility for any of the attacks, while noting that they took place on Lebanese soil and during the Lebanese civil war.

Lahoud, the former ambassador, says that in the opinion of most Lebanese "Hezbollah was highly instrumental in liberating the south and that it is quite an effective resistance movement. This kind of activity, connected to liberation, cannot be seen as terrorist activity."

It was Hezbollah's success against Israel, many believe, that encouraged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to launch the second intifada, the uprising that began in September 2000 and continues today. The suicide-bomb attacks that have characterized the uprising were taken straight from the playbook Hezbollah had used in southern Lebanon.

Definitions of terrorism aside, all of the radical groups surveyed in Lebanon denounced bin Laden's al-Qaida as a phenomenon that had deeply hurt the Palestinian cause they value most. "We have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden," said Usamah Hamadi, Lebanese representative for Hamas. "We think that his actions were more harmful to Muslims than any action by anyone ever."

"No one likes al-Qaida here," said Souheil Natour, Beirut representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "Here people have one criteria. If you are doing something against the Israeli occupation it will be accepted, even if it's terrorism. Al-Qaida is not supported because it has done nothing against Israel."

Refugee life

Natour, 56, came to Beirut from Palestinian lands as a 1-year-old and has spent his entire life in the squalid refugee camps of Lebanon.

"We live every day with the reality that Israel is the cause of our misery and that the United States supports Israel," he said. "Every Palestinian here knows these facts. But that doesn't mean we have faith in any Arab government. We don't."

Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from 72 different professions, from lawyer and doctor to engineer. As of last year, a new law prohibits them from owning property. They have no vote, no passport and little prospect for advancing in Lebanese society.

The more candid Lebanese officials acknowledge the Palestinians' plight but say their hands are tied. Assimilating the Palestinians into Lebanon would take the pressure off Israel, they say; it would also upset the demographic balance between the country's Christians and Muslims (a balance so delicate, in fact, that no official census has been permitted since 1932). At the Sabra and Shatila camp, near downtown Beirut, the burdens of Palestinian life in Lebanon are nakedly present.

Just after noon one day last week, in the dark recesses of Farhad Salim's second-floor rooms, his wife had to slice vegetables by the light of a single, flickering candle.

Electricity flows just 13 hours a day here, through a spider's web of wires and flimsy plastic switches that link the shabby houses in some of the meanest alleyways of Beirut.

Black plastic water pipes, 1 1/2 inches in diameter, run overhead as well, but the water flowing through them is too foul to drink. The sewage drains do function, barely, but whenever it rains the overflow spills onto the streets.

Sabra and Shatila is the most notorious of the camps where displaced Palestinians have lived since shortly after Israel's establishment as a state in 1948.

It is where, in 1982, Israeli occupation forces stood by as Christian militia troops massacred some 800 Palestinians. Salim says that he and his family huddled for three days in their apartment, during the worst of the killing, and finally escaped.

Others weren't so lucky. Adnan Ali Mokdad, 53, showed the cemetery where 30 of his relatives are buried. Every one of them, he says, was killed during the 1982 massacre.

An Israeli commission of inquiry found the Israeli defense forces, headed by Ariel Sharon, "indirectly responsible." Sharon resigned from government. The fact that he has returned as prime minister, two decades later, is something that leaves the survivors of Sabra and Shatila amazed and enraged.

Salim is 55. He was born in Safid, in Galilee, and still carries the birth certificate he was given by the British government of Palestine just before Israel's creation in 1948. He has four sons, aged 19 to 29. Only one has found work, keeping books at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Salim himself, a carpenter and mason, has had no work for the past 18 months.

On the possibility of a U.S. war on Iraq, Salim says that what he fears most is that Sharon will take advantage of the general chaos to expel another large group of Palestinians -- and that many of them will end up here, competing for jobs in a place where the pickings are already slim to none.

UNRWA officials say the agency does what it can, given the political constraints of Lebanon and its dependence on voluntary donations. In recent years the United States has contributed the bulk of UNRWA's funds; for 2001, U.S. contributions made up $115 million of UNRWA's $355 million budget.

In Lebanon the U.N. office provides schools, basic medical care, micro-loans for business start-ups and emergency food rations, and cash assistance for families in dire financial shape. Available funds don't begin to meet the needs, a gap that is readily apparent in the pock-marked streets of the Sabra and Shatila camp.

Ahmed, a 12-year-old boy, works the metal cutter in a trash-filled iron-working shop that is so dark the ancient equipment is barely visible.

Ahmed is one of five sons, all younger than 15. He attended just two years of school, he says, and cannot read or write. He works in the shop six days a week, 12 hours a day. The owner, another Palestinian, pays him $6.50 per week.

Ahmed declines, when asked, to give his family name.

"It's not important," he said, as he reached for another strip of metal.

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