Strange Goings-On Here In Lebanon

Stories that just don't seem to make it into print.

Did you know that the Hizbollah "Party of God" has installed its own private communications network in the south of Lebanon, stretching from the village of Zawter Sharqiya all the way to Beirut? And why, I wonder, would it be doing that? Well, to safeguard its phones in the event that the Israelis immobilise the public mobile system in the next war. Next war? Well, if there's not going to be another war in Lebanon, why is Hizbollah building new roads north of the Litani river, new bunkers, new logistics far outside the area of operations of the Nato-led UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon?

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, boasts of new weapons. The Lebanese suspect that these include anti-aircraft missiles. If this is true - and many Lebanese who have spent their lives under Israel's cruel air attacks, assaults which have often been war crimes, hope it is - then the next war will be anticipated with dark but keen anxiety. Since the Israeli army is incapable of fighting the Hizbollah on its own ground - its collapse when faced by Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon last year proved this - what happens if their awesome air power is also neutered?

Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, ensconced in his little "green zone" in the old Turkish serail, can do little to alter the course of this coming battle. Supplied with bombs by the Americans so that the Lebanese army can continue to blast its way through the Palestinian Nahr el-Bared refugee camp - one of the most uncovered stories of the Middle East year - his government can do no more than wonder at the resistance of the ruthless non-Hizbollah Islamist insurgents who are still holding out there. The US ambassador watches approvingly as the Lebanese army continues to "advance" amid strongholds and bunkers at a cost of almost 140 soldiers' lives although, after four months of "advancing" - as one western NGO remarked to me a few days ago - they might soon, at this rate, reach Cyprus.

One can only reflect on how the US ambassador to Tel Aviv reacts when the Americans supply bombs to the Israelis which are then used on the Palestinians of Gaza. Weapons are always available to blast away at the Palestinians.

This is Fouad Siniora's predicament as Hizbollah tries to destroy his government and prevent the election of a non- partisan president next month. Locked into Washington's embrace as the latest Arab country to prove the spread of George Bush's fantastical version of democracy in the Middle East, powerless in a country where the only functioning institution is now the Lebanese army, the prime minister finds himself on America's side in the "war on terror" against Hizbollah's mentors in Iran. All Hizbollah needed now, poor old Fouad was quoted as saying the other day, was "a composer for a national anthem of their own".

But there are other fears creating shadows in Lebanon. One of them is the sectarianism of Iraq. Lebanon's Shias and Sunnis and Christians all have friends and family in Iraq. Many have visited their loved ones who have appeared amid the Iraqi refugee masses that have poured into neighbouring Damascus. For their care, of course, the Syrians have received not a scintilla of gratitude from the Americans who were responsible for creating the hell-disaster of Iraq in the first place. It's worth comparing the vital statistics (though not on CNN or Fox News): Syria has accepted almost one and a half million Iraqi refugees - caring for them, providing them with welfare and free hospital services - while Washington, when it isn't cursing Iraq's prime minister, has accepted a measly 800 Iraqis.

And Lebanon? No one realises that this tiny Arab country has accepted 50,000 Iraqis since the great refugee exodus began. Of course, the Shia Iraqis have moved into the Shia southern suburbs (home of Hizbollah), the Sunni into Sunni areas of Beirut and Sidon, the Christians into Christian east Beirut and the Metn hills. And because the Lebanese have always called the Iraqis brothers and sisters, there has been no friction between the different Iraqi groups - and this is truly wondrous because only last January, Lebanon's Shia and Sunni youths were stoning each other in their thousands in the streets of Beirut.

So what else do the Americans have up their sleeve for us out here? Well, an old chum of mine in the Deep South - a former US Vietnam veteran officer - has a habit of tramping through the hills to the north of his home and writes to me that "in my therapeutic and recreation trips ... in the mountains of North Carolina over the last two weeks, I've noticed a lot of F-16 and C-130 activity. They are coming right through the passes, low to the ground. The last time I saw this kind of thing up there was before Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan".

That was in early August. Two weeks later, my friend wrote again. "There were a few (more) C-130 passes... I know that some 75th Rangers have just moved out of their home base and that manoeuvres have gone on in areas that have been used... in the past before assaults utilizing [sic] aircraft guided by small numbers of special operations people."

And then comes the cruncher in my friend's letter. "I think that the Bush administration is looking for something to distract Americans before the mid-September report on progress in Iraq. And I believe that the pressure is building to do something about the sanctuaries for the Taliban and foreign fighters along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border..."

A few days after my friend's letter arrived in Beirut, the Pakistanis reported that the Americans were using pilotless drones to attack targets just inside Pakistan. But it seems much more ambitious military plans may now be in the works. An all-out strike inside the North West Frontier province before President Pervez Musharref steps down - or is overthrown? A last throw of the dice at Bin Laden before "democracy" returns to Pakistan?

Stand by for more disasters - from Pakistan to the shores of the Mediterranean. But don't expect to hear about them in advance.

Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent for The Independent.

(c) 2007 The Independent

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