Lebanon Cries Victory, But Is It Too Soon?

The victory of the Lebanese army at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp - the killing of up to 100 al-Qa'ida-type insurgents at the cost of 163 Lebanese soldiers and 42 civilians - is being greeted in the country with "trumpetings" and "hootings" worthy of the country's greatest poet, Khalil Gibran.

For three days now, the newspapers have devoted their front pages to photographs of Lebanese troops astride their ageing US-made personnel carriers, giving "V" signs, firing in the air and succumbing to the traditional warriors' reward of rice and rose-water.

Chaker Absi, leader of Fatah al-Islam, who vowed to fight to the death for "Palestine", lies in a Tripoli mortuary, identified by wife and daughter.

But Gibran, whose Garden of the Prophet was published in 1934, warned that we should "Pity the nation that... boasts not except among its ruins... whose art is the art of patching and mimicking..." And, after 106 days of fighting, the ruins of Nahr el-Bared are a sea of Dresden-like walls and collapsed slums, of booby-traps and unexploded bombs.

The Lebanese government has promised to rebuild the whole fandango. The Palestinians are the brothers of the Lebanese, they say - and what other Arab government would be so generous after the carnage of the past four months? But everyone is asking where the next battle will begin.

The Lebanese army has lost - since April of this year - just five men fewer than the total 163 British dead in Iraq since the invasion of 2003; it is an impressive, dramatic, solemn toll of dead and will only emphasise the army's unique role in the political life of this sorely broken country.

With the parliamentary majority and its largely Shia Muslim opposition still unable to agree on a presidential candidate, the nation faces the prospect of the emergence of two governments and two potential presidents - one of whom, former general Michel Aoun, was the messianic "prime minister" of Lebanon last time the country had two civil war administrations. General Michel Sulieman, the leader of the Lebanese army, comes out of it all with a much enhanced reputation; he has friends in Damascus, friends in Washington, friends even in Lebanon and may yet be the latest "saviour" to protect a statelet created so blithely by the French mandate authorities after the First World War.

But Ghassan Tueni, the doyen of Lebanese editors whose son was murdered last year - by the Syrians, his supporters remain convinced - warned in an epoch-making editorial two weeks ago that Lebanon should not be ruled by generals. He is right, of course; but Middle East nations have a habit of turning to their army commanders for salvation. Military regimes also tend to be supported by Washington, which was among the first to offer weapons - old and for the most part obsolete - to the Lebanese army in its latest battle.

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, has praised his army and claimed its victory at Nahr el-Bared was "the country's biggest victory against terrorism."

Many Lebanese, however, believe the most recent act of terrorism was Israel's 34-day bombardment of Lebanon last year which cost well over 1,000 civilian lives and followed the capture of two Israeli soldiers on the border by Hizbollah and the subsequent killing of seven others on 12 July. And the same country which supplied the Israelis with weapons to destroy so much of Lebanon then - the United States - has been providing weapons for the Lebanese army to attack Fatah el-Islam.

The latter's survivors warned a week ago that some of their number had escaped from Nahr el-Bared and there were "black days" ahead for Siniora's government. For the moment, Syria and her friends in Lebanon who want to destroy the Siniora cabimet have been heaping praise on the Lebanese army. But we shall see in the near future if those "black days" turn out to be real.

Robert Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent.

(c) 2007 The Independent

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