Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cluster ban a positive step

When the outlook of the world couldn't appear more bleak, a symbolic step towards humanitarianism was made.

The worldwide ban on the deadly use of cluster munitions was given credibility thanks to the signature of Britain.

London shrugged off its American allies by agreeing to sign an agreement that will prevent the unnecessary deaths and injuries of millions of victims of war around the world.

The agreement has a sensitive touch in Lebanon, the most recent country to feel the brunt of the lethal weapons. At the close of its losing war against Hezbollah, Israel scattered millions of undetonated cluster bombs throughout South Lebanon. Over 200 have died or been injured in the region since.

Typically, the US, Israel, Russia and China refused to scrap the munitions for fairly obvious reasons. The three heavyweights are the world's main producers of cluster munitions, reaping billions of dollars.

The Israelis have successfully dodged the spotlight for decades on its mass stockpile of WMDs and nuclear weapons. Scrapping cluster munitions would seem uncharacteristic of Israel's military policy to increase its lethal, non-conventional arsenal.

Nonetheless, the signature of over 100 countries will hopefully signal to ruthless countries like Israel that the use of cluster munitions in future practices won't go unnoticed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Map of Lebanon's electoral law

Courtesy of Beirut Spring

Lebanon's Syrian-imposed electoral law has been abolished.

The country will revert to its predecessor, the 1960 electoral law, with a few modifications in Beirut at Hariri's behest.

Although I remain completely antagonistic towards Lebanon's sectarian-flawed system, the abolishment of the Syrian-imposed law is a step closer to appropriate representation of the population.

The Syrian-imposed law was pretty much based on the current map above, except it grouped the small electoral districts into large electoral regions. For example, North Lebanon was divided into three electoral regions, one of which encompassed the electoral districts of Tripoli, Koura and a third. Of course, the greater populous of Tripoli outnumbered the smaller rural districts. So as it turned out, the voters of Tripoli essentially decided who would be representing the Kourans, for example, as opposed to Koura electing its own representative.

On a sectarian scale, this caused problems. Again with the above example, Tripoli is a largely Sunni city, and Koura a predominant Christian (Orthodox) region. So in essence, Sunnis in Tripoli were deciding who would represent the Orthodox community in Koura.

Originally, the Syrians implemented this law to favour then-allies Rafik al-Hariri and Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt. Following Hariri's assassination in 2005, his son Saad Hariri and Jumblatt became sworn enemies of Syria, but retained the electoral system Damascus drafted for them.

Much of the division and tension between the anti-Syrian camp and the Opposition centres on political representation. Christian political power was eaten away under Syrian rule, and the Shi'ites have never had much domestic political power as far as the system is concerned. Thus, it isn't a coincidence that the major Christian and Shia parties (Michel Aoun's FPM and Hezbollah) formed an alliance to combat the over-represented Sunni and Druze leadership.

Since then, it has been a battle for numbers with both sides claiming to represent the majority of Lebanese public opinion. Now with the electoral battle lines drawn back closer to a level playing field, we will find out in 2009 who really is the majority ... hopefully without the use of weapons.

Syria aims to recover a lost treasure

Syria is on a mission to recover a key fragment of the nation ... its expats. The below BBC feature covers a new government initiative to attract the 15 million Syrian expats back to their homeland.

Emigration from the Levant has been a common problem since the early 20th century. Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians have long sought economic prosperity and stability in their lives elsewhere. A similar number of people of Lebanese origin live outside of Lebanon. The 'brain-drain' problem for states like Lebanon and Syria hasn't receded in the 21st century. Young Lebanese and Syrians are still queuing up for foreign visas in droves, hoping for a brighter future in the wealthy Gulf or the West.

For the first time since the emigration dilemma arose over a century ago, the Syrian government is seeking to not only stem the flow of emigration, but bring those who have already settled in rich countries back home.

Assad vowed when he came to power that his rule would be different to that of his fierce father. He promised a more open and transparent economy and society. Many of us have sat impatiently on the sidelines as Damascus has stalled itself on a number of occasions to advance since Assad's promise eight years ago.

The country is still ruled by an iron fist, although public criticisms and discussions of the Assad regime have become more conspicuous. And Syria's economy is still struggling to pull itself out of what Assad describes as a draining culture of inefficient bureaucracy and corruption.

I don't doubt that Assad wants to modernise his country. Whereas his father modelled his state's system on Stalin, Bashar al-Assad has turned east at China's ability to maintain its status as a dictatorship, yet flourish economically.

When Assad sees China, he sees that modernity, economic prosperity and dictatorship can co-exist. That's his vision for Syria.

But Damascus knows it cannot remain in a state of war with Israel, be at odds with the West, and hope for modernisation at the same time. Like China in the 1980s, Syria must tone down the tension in the Middle East to enable a stable period of economic development. Assad needs to make a choice between external posturing or internal development, he can't have it both ways.

The call to entice expats back to the country is a major move. Despite having a modernist at its helm, the old Middle Eastern tradition of corruption and tribalism is so deeply entrenched that even a dictator like Assad can't overpower it.

His response?

Let's attract Syrian expats to the country to modernise its economy with their Western efficient know-how skills, root out the corruption and stale bureaucracy (i.e. the old guard), and bring about a great economic and social change.

Not a bad plan, but whether Assad can role out enough red carpets to entice expats to give up their cushion lives in the West appears to be a big ask.

Politics and partisanship aside, Assad's move is an interesting development that Lebanon must read carefully. Both countries have suffered from the brain-drain for too long. Our political squabbles are forcing thousands of young Lebanese to seek a life elsewhere. The only way to put a stop to this flow is to have a 100% commitment to revitalise our economy and reform the state. Assad, for all of his misgivings, appears to be committed. So should we.

Syria welcomes expatriates home

By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, 28/05/08, Damascus

Syria is changing its legislation in order to attract its large number of expatriates back to the country, bringing their skills and capital with them.

President Bashar Assad himself lived in the UK for many years before coming to power in 2000 after the death of his father.

Measures include economic incentives and exemptions from military service. The latter was one of the main reasons expatriates would not even come back to the country to visit their families.

Baha Issa, in his 30s, lived for more than 15 years in the UK and Dubai. He has now left his job as a communications officer for Microsoft to work at the newly established Sham Holding company in Syria.

"I am very excited to come back. In a developed country you have slowly to climb the career ladder, but here you are part of a team that is taking the country to a different level," he says.

It is a message the government - which estimates that 15 million Syrians are living abroad, compared with 20 million at home - is keen to promote.

High qualifications

Dr Buthaina Shabaan is in charge of a special ministry set up to encourage them to return, bringing their business know-how with them.

"The ministry is established to facilitate relationships between expatriates and Syria. Many of these expatriates are highly qualified. It would be very beneficial to get them back, not necessarily to leave their countries, but at least to build bridges."

Dr Shabaan admits Syria is not always an easy place to work. As a country in transition, its institutions still have a long way to go to achieve efficiency.

"Don't think that we can make Syria a better place [immediately]. You are coming back to participate in making Syria a better place, including fighting bureaucracy, corruption and every negative aspect that we all suffer from."

Some believe that the culture of the homeland, along with new business opportunities, compensates for difficulties.

In the 1990s, Samer Kallas - an architect in his 50s who lived the US - was reluctant to live in a country that was lagging behind the West technologically and in terms of development.

But after 11 September, 2001, his view changed.

"There is no perfect place on earth. Syria has a lot of obstacles, but we should not expect everything to be available and ready and given.

"After 11 September, the whole atmosphere in the US became distorted, especially towards Arab origins or background, so I felt more freedom to come back to the Middle East".

Absent freedoms

But for many returning Syrians, the greater economic freedom does not fully make up for the lack of political freedom.

Yousef Abdalki, a well-known artist who went to France in the 1980s after being jailed for membership of the Socialist Labour Party, has now returned to settle in his old home town.

"I came back because it is my right to come back. I don't think much has changed in the nature of authorities or their security control, but the global situation has changed.

"We still have people imprisoned for expressing their views. I don't think a country can develop while freedoms are absent."

Nevertheless, he says he has great hope that Syrians will one day enjoy freedom of expression.

In the old city of Damascus, young musicians prepare for a concert at a small theatre. Theatro is a popular venue that was opened by actress Mai Skaf. She is keen to offer young Syrian artists a place for free expression.

"Theatro started with an idea which was a dream that we as young artists have energy, enthusiasm, and a desire to work in a field that we know and that is an entity for us.

"Cultural movements raise the infrastructure of the society and create chances for young artists to stay and achieve their dreams here. Personally I feel I am not able to see my project or myself outside Syria - to live and work outside Syria, I feel I would lose my identity."

Significantly, perhaps, most of the musicians here are planning their future in Syria.

While exact figures on the number of Syrian returnees are not available, anecdotal evidence suggests many people are being attracted back.

The real test of the government's success, though, will be whether members of the younger generation decide this is where they want to live too.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Lebanese message to our politicians in Doha

Lebanese wheelchair-bound war veterans gather on airport road in Beirut during a demonstration May 16, 2008. The demonstrators are holding banners addressed to Lebanese politicians participating in the dialogue in Qatar that read, "If you won't agree don't come back!!!", REUTERS/ Sharif Karim (LEBANON)

Rival Christian leaders, Michel Aoun of the pro-Opposition Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Geagea of the US-backed Lebanese Forces exchange small talk while they wait for their departing planes at Beirut Airport. REUTERS/ Khalil Hassan (LEBANON)

At least they're talking, that's one positive sign.

Indian diplomat: Iran outmanoeuvre Saudi Arabia

An excellent article by a former Indian diplomat on the Middle East chess game between Iran and Saudi-US.

Saudi, US grapple with Iran challenge

By M K Bhadrakumar

Asia Times, May 17, 2008.

A timeless and abstract passion, which could gain instantaneous contemporaneity and which has proven to be unfailingly useful for statecraft, was invoked in Middle Eastern politics once again this week. It is the ultimate weapon in Saudi Arabia's arsenal of regional diplomacy. It is seductive in its appeal, yet almost embarrassingly direct.

That was how, most certainly, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal would have thought when on Tuesday he warned Tehran that its support to what he termed Hezbollah's "coup" in Lebanon would affect Iran's relations with Arab and Islamic countries. The Saudi prince went on to exhort all Middle East countries to respect Lebanon's independence and to refrain from stoking "sectarian tensions" in that country.

It is extremely rare for Saudi diplomacy to blatantly use the weapon of sectarianism against Shi'ite Iran and to draw a line of divide between the Persians and the surrounding Sunni Muslim Arab world. More so as Saudi clerics are usually put to use in playing the "Shi'ite card" against Iran.

But this time around, if the intention of the vastly experienced, cosmopolitan Saudi prince was to unnerve Tehran, he failed. Tehran coolly ignored the Saudi foreign minister's warning. To make things doubly clear, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said dismissively the Saudi prince spoke in "anger".

Anger, we know, doesn't go well with good Muslims. Ahmadinejad then proceeded to make a startling revelation that Faisal was not following the "orders" of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud.

Indeed, King Abdullah seemed to quickly dissociate himself from his foreign minister's dire warning to Iran. On Wednesday, the Saudi ambassador in Tehran, Osama bin Ahmad al-Sonosi, called on the chairman of Iran's Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to hand over a letter from the Saudi monarch containing an invitation to the Iranian cleric leader to visit Riyadh to attend the International Islamic Dialogue Conference. The Saudi ambassador reportedly said, "King Abdullah believes you [Rafsanjani] have a great stature in the Islamic world ... and he has assigned me the duty of inviting you to the conference."

Rafsanjani expressed his appreciation for the "special invitation" and bemoaned that "disagreements" in the Islamic world involving both politicians and clerics have alas created an "undesirable situation". He added the conflicts in certain Islamic countries, especially Iraq and Lebanon, had widened the "chasms between Muslims". He expressed the hope the Islamic Dialogue Conference could "moderate the atmosphere and facilitate cooperation between Islamic states". In turn, the Saudi envoy underscored that "through the conference, we [Riyadh] are seeking to promote unity in the Islamic world".

Conceivably, the Saudi foreign minister had reason to feel frustrated. The entire Saudi political stratagem in Lebanon has backfired. The Saudi backing for the Foud al-Siniora government's moves to drag Hezbollah into a civil war stands badly exposed. A most awkward detail known to the "Arab street" is that Saudi intelligence and diplomacy was acting hand-in-glove with the United States in the dubious business of emasculating Hezbollah. The ultimate US-Saudi intention was to curtail Hezbollah's dominating stature on Lebanon's political and security landscape.

The crisis in Lebanon was proceeded by a barrage of propaganda in the Saudi-supported media aimed at discrediting Hezbollah in Arab opinion and to demolish its profile as Lebanon's resistance movement before disarming it.

In fact, Saudi propaganda went into overdrive. To quote the al-Hayat newspaper published from London, "Hamas takes Gaza hostage. Hezbollah takes Beirut hostage. Muqtada al-Sadr threatens Iraq. Al-Qaeda threatens the whole world. Extremist militias and movements suppress peoples and overthrow governments ... the only difference between what the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the 1990s and what Hezbollah did in Lebanon is the time and place."

As it turns out, Hezbollah made the Siniora government and its Saudi backers look very foolish. As Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin put it, Hezbollah proved last week that it is the strongest force in Lebanon - "stronger than the Lebanese army" - and could have seized power if it had wanted to. "Hezbollah did not intend to take control ... If it had wanted to, it could have done it," Yadlin told Ha'aretz newspaper.

Equally, the US and the Saudis, in their acute embarrassment, have tried to characterize the dispute as religious. But it was the Siniora government's decisions concerning Hezbollah's communication system and the sacking of the chief of Beirut airport which triggered the confrontation. These decisions were interconnected and had manifestly security-oriented overtones.

At any rate, Siniora's government was supposed to confine itself to running the day-to-day affairs until a Lebanese president is elected, but instead it made a strategic decision of countering Hezbollah's expanding influence. (This followed secret visits by the secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council and former intelligence chief and ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, to Beirut.) In retrospect, Hezbollah would seem to have staged a "counter-coup" rather than a "coup".

The Saudis have realized there aren't many takers in the Arab world for their anti-Iran, anti-Hezbollah ploys at present. Qatar, Yemen and Algeria have visibly dissociated from the Saudis. Syria continues to firmly align with Iran. Oman, which currently heads the Gulf Cooperation Council, is most disinterested in Saudi Arabia's anti-Iranian stratagems. The deputy to Oman's Sultan, Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said, paid a successful visit to Iran on April 20. A visit by Oman's Sultan Qaboos to Iran is in the cards. Sensing its growing isolation, Riyadh mounted the latest Arab League mediation in Lebanon on Wednesday. The Arab League meeting itself was scarcely attended.

Tehran, however, tactful as ever, has promptly responded to the "softening" of the Saudi stance. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on Wednesday that if the Arab League delegation led by Qatari Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, could reach a comprehensive solution, Iran would support it. Iran stands to gain by being seen as cooperating with a regional peace initiative.

Iran's active diplomacy in the past year has proved highly effective when the crunch came, in thwarting repeated US-Saudi attempts to invoke the specter of a "Shi'ite crescent" in the region spearheaded by Tehran.

The Lebanon crisis may prove to be a turning point insofar as despite last week's fighting in Lebanon, the broad perception regarding Hezbollah in Arab opinion - that it is the fountainhead of resistance rather than a Shi'ite militia locked in fratricidal strife - remains largely intact. This broad perception cuts across sectarian divides in the Arab world.

The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, said the Lebanese resistance is the only group that determines what is good for the country while facing the "Zionist-US plot that is penetrating deep into Lebanon". Akef stressed that in the Muslim mind, Hezbollah's image stands unshaken. Similar statements of solidarity have been made by other Sunni Islamic organizations in the Middle East, including in Jordan, despite the Jordanian regime's close alliance with Riyadh.

Such solidarity of regional Muslim opinion favoring Hezbollah works to Iran's advantage. The Saudi king's invitation to Rafsanjani to visit Riyadh is a grudging acknowledgement of this political reality. Washington has been desperately keen to transfer the "Lebanon file" to the United Nations Security Council next week. US deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams said in Washington on Tuesday, "We are going to be unrolling a few things in the course of the week, starting perhaps with the Security Council." But it is unlikely the Saudis will want a showdown with Iran over Lebanon at New York at this juncture.

The Saudis would assess that the mood in the Middle East region will militate against Riyadh getting involved openly with the George W Bush administration in disarming Hezbollah, whereas the focus ought to be on forging national unity in Lebanon. Nor does Tehran actually seek any confrontation with Riyadh. Time works in its favor. Therefore, we may expect some sort of agreement being worked out involving the Lebanese parties under the auspices of the current Arab League mediatory mission.

What is most extraordinary is that all this is playing out on the sidelines of Bush's own visit to the region. As things stand, the Middle East is seething with anger that the Bush administration has dumped the Israel-Palestine "peace process", despite all the hullabaloo at the Annapolis conference in the US last November. In addition, Bush's close identification with Israel profoundly alienates Arab opinion. The Bush administration's overall credibility is also very low, given the Iraq quagmire. Bush is being left in no doubt that the mood in the Middle East is firmly against any US adventurism against Iran. Curiously, Washington seems to anticipate the trust deficit in Riyadh and Cairo, the key Arab capitals that are on Bush's itinerary.

No doubt, there is some symbolism in the fact that just ahead of Bush's tour, the US warship USS Cole, which has been deployed in the Persian Gulf since March, crossed the Suez Canal on Sunday en route to the Mediterranean. Again, in a well-timed statement on Wednesday, even as Bush arrived in the Middle East, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at two different forums in Washington about the imperatives of the US engaging Iran. Gates virtually shut the door on a military option against Iran, saying, "There is no doubt that ... we would be very hard-pressed to fight another major conventional war right now."

Gates said, "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage ... and then sit down and talk with them [Iran]. If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us." In yet another venue on Wednesday, Gates amplified, "My personal view would be we ought to look for ways outside of government to open up the channels and get more of a flow of people back and forth ... We ought to increase the flow the other way [of Americans visiting Iran]."

What it adds up to is that the Bush administration realizes that it is left with hardly any choice other than resorting to "Track II" diplomacy with Tehran. The Iranians are no more taking the lame-duck administration in Washington seriously. They know the Bush administration stands widely discredited in the Middle East. They know it is in any case necessary to deal with the new administration in Washington next year. They are shrewd enough to assess that any US exit strategy in Iraq that the incoming US administration formulates, will be critically dependent on Iran's cooperation.

Meanwhile, the axis involving Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah remains intact. Tehran knows it can afford to sit tight for the remaining period of the Bush administration. Of course, it should not do anything rash in the meantime that might provide an alibi to Washington to lash out. Most important, the Iranian regime knows its policy enjoys strong popular support within the country.
Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that the masses overwhelmingly supported Iran's "fight against arrogant power ... You can find no one in Iran willing to give up nuclear technology".

The Saudis have no answer to the challenge posed by Iran. Sadly, their response is to build a wall to protect Saudi Arabia from subversion from Iraq as the US winds down its troop levels. But the Saudis need to realize the futility of warding off an existential challenge by building bunkers and concrete walls.

The most critical calculation behind Tehran's policy at the present juncture would be that US-Saudi ties have come under unprecedented stress, which in turn, incrementally, weakens Riyadh's leadership role and overall standing in the region. In an insightful dispatch from Riyadh, Karen Elliott House, the Pulitzer Prize-winning diplomatic correspondent and a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, wrote in the newspaper on Wednesday that the US and Saudi Arabia are finding it "problematic" to steer their relationship, which is already "fraying" at its edges. The core ingredients of the traditional mutually beneficial relationship - a US security blanket in lieu of cheap Saudi oil - are lacking even as the "neighborhood around Saudi Arabia has become much more threatening".

House writes, "Nor can the US protect the [Saudi] regime from its own domestic challenges ... In sum, the mutual needs of the US and Saudi Arabia remain as great as at any time over the past 75 years, but the abilities of both parties to make the partnership mutually productive are diminishing, perhaps irretrievably so. It's difficult to see how this trend can be reversed, regardless who occupies the White House a year from now."

Close to three decades after the Islamic revolution in Iran, Tehran will be keenly watching for signs of Saudi acceptance of the need to accommodate its rising profile as a regional power. But it is too early to tell. Things are in great flux. Lebanon, as ever before, is only one turf where the epic struggle in the region is being played out.

As the Tehran Times commented, "These incidents are not limited to Lebanon. Indeed, a chain of events is unfolding from Gaza to Baghdad's Sadr City to Beirut, with the United States and Israel clearly stirring up the violence. Gaza and Beirut are strategically interconnected because the security of the Zionist regime and the United States directly depends on these three places."

Riyadh is in two minds. The urbane Westernized Saudi foreign minister's uncharacteristic threat to ostracize Shi'ite Iran in the Islamic world on account of its regional policy in Lebanon harks to the past. The Saudi king's native wisdom in inviting an Iranian cleric leader to visit Riyadh at the present critical juncture beckons to the future. The House of Saud is apparently being pulled in different directions.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mother and sister of fallen Australian-Lebanese speak to Al Manar (Arabic)

Australian media extensively covers Halba massacre

News reached the Australian media on Monday morning that an Australian man had been killed in the massacre. Whilst pro-government media outlets in Lebanon tried to ignore the issue, the media in Australia have not let it slip.

Below is a TV news report by ABC. I couldn't extract the video, or get a direct link. If you wish to view it, click on page 5 of the archive list, or look for the title "Melbourne man killed in Lebanon clashes" with the date Tue, 13 May 2008.

ABC TV news report

The first article below is the full story, but the remainder are excerpts of several articles:

Melbourne Herald Sun - 14/05/08

Matt Dunn

THE widow of a Melbourne father of four murdered and mutilated in a political showdown in Lebanon is in shock.

Fadi Sheikh, 41, was killed in a raid on an opposition party's offices north of Tripoli.

A pro-government mob of attackers reportedly cut off Mr Sheikh's hands and feet after he died.

Mr Sheikh's traumatised wife was being comforted by family members at her Craigieburn home yesterday. Mr Sheikh was in Lebanon visiting his mother.

He was a taxi driver who fled Lebanon 10 years ago, but was not known to make regular trips back to the Middle East.

A family friend denied Mr Sheikh was a key member of the pro-Syrian opposition Hezb al-Kulmi party, which was attacked on Saturday night. But a Hezb al-Kulmi spokesman in Lebanon said Mr Sheikh "was an important member of this organisation".

"They shot him in the gas station, then attacked his body with heavy instruments," he said.

Gruesome video of the attack has been released by the killers.

Three short videos, each up to 90 seconds long, show at least five bloodied bodies surrounded by attackers who continue to kick and beat their victims. One of the men appears to be still alive and tries to fend off further blows before being killed.

A blood-covered cement block used in the murders is visible, and gunshots are heard to ring out.

It is unclear if Mr Sheikh's body is among the group captured on the footage released on the internet.

The raid is believed to have been carried out by Sunni Islamists with the Future Movement party.

Mr Sheikh, himself a Sunni Muslim, travelled to Lebanon before the sectarian violence started six days ago.

"I heard that two bodies were severed, I didn't know all of them were," a Melbourne associate of Mr Sheikh's said yesterday.

"I'm not sure if his family here is aware of the brutality of his death."

Al-Qaida-inspired militants have severed the hands and feet of their victims in previous attacks in Lebanon, particularly in 2007 during exchanges with the Lebanese Army in which several soldiers suffered a similar fate.

The latest round of violence has left at least 60 dead and scores more wounded, stoking fears the country is headed for another all-out conflict.

Army troops were preparing to use force to disarm gunmen and to enforce law and order.


The Australian - 13/05/08

The body of slain Australian Fahdi Sheikh was mutilated by his killers in a petrol station before they rampaged through a nearby political office, killing eight of his colleagues.

ABC News - 12/05/08

Mr Issa says Mr Sheikh was one of 12 people killed when around 100 pro-Government loyalists attacked the office of an Opposition political party.

ABC Radio
(audio) - 12/05/08

The Age - 12/05/08

"Mr Sheikh went to Lebanon to see family and friends and he was just caught up in the fighting and he died. It is very tragic.'' - 12/05/08

He had been in a coalition opposition office, used to provide the community with safety advice and information, when it was stormed by a pro-government mob.

Sydney Morning Herald - 12/05/08

He said the mob attacked everyone inside the building, including Mr Sheikh, who was not in Lebanon for a political reason.

SBS World News Australia - 12/05/08

"It was quite brutal. Some people tried to escape and were hunted down and killed."

Melbourne Herald Sun - 12/05/08

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) spokesman said Mr Sheikh's death underlined the highly dangerous situation in Lebanon and the need for Australians to continue to exercise extreme caution.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Halba massacre

Callous attacks are spreading across the country, with scores of innocents falling in between the flames.

Halba, North Lebanon, witnessed some of the most atrocious of these attacks. Over 100 Future Movement supporters destroyed an SSNP office on Saturday, killed 10 execution style against a wall, and mutilated their bodies. It was discovered that the injured who went to the hospital were hunted and killed at the hospital.

What is worse is that a FM supporter was filming the atrocities as they were taking place, and these have since spread all over Lebanon, the world and YouTube. YouTube have since taken the clips down.

If March 14 were hoping that Hizballah's actions in West Beirut would have boosted their PR image, the latest atrocity in Halba will come as a serious setback as shock grips the country at the scale of the barbarism. The massacre has caused outrage.

Below are the videos of the massacre that were posted on YouTube. Please be warned the scenes are very disturbing.

Right click and save to view the videos.

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

God help Lebanon!

It is with sad regret that a close family friend of mine also died in the Halba attack. He was visiting his mother in Lebanon for the first time since migrating to Australia a decade ago. His body was mutilated, his arms and legs severed after he had been killed. He leaves a young family behind in Australia.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hizballah humiliates March 14, Lebanon enters new phase

Enough was enough.

That was the message from Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, during his press conference two days ago.

The country had been paralysed in a political deadlock for 18 months, six of which without a president. The economy was spiralling into stagnation and an ever-growing debt, the occasional riot and assassination adding to the tension.

Both sides - the Syrian/Iranian-backed Opposition led by Hizballah and the US-backed ruling March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri - had pushed buttons throughout the impasse, but refrained from a complete blowout ... until May 7.

Last week, the March 14 coalition sacked the Beirut Airport's head of security, a close friend of Hizballah, accusing the Shi'ite group of spying at the airport. The move outraged Hizballah, but March 14 didn't stop there. Its next move was the catalyst for the sharp turn of events, the final straw for Hizballah and its allies. March 14 deemed Hizballah's military telecommunications network, which the resistance movement says was vital to its defense against Israel in the 2006 war, illegal and commenced on plans to dismantle it.

Hizballah's response? Enough is enough!

Nasrallah lambasted the encroachments on Hizballah as a declaration of war, and poured hundreds of its well-disciplined fighters - alongside fellow militiamen from allies Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) - into Saad Hariri's stronghold of West Beirut, seizing control of the Muslim section of the city in less than 24 hours. In a spiteful response, the fighters shut down Hariri's media network, Al Mustaqbal, and set the building ablaze.

Reports also emerged that Hizballah and Amal fighters surrounded the Clemenceau home of PSP Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, as well as his security centres in the Chouf mountains. Nasrallah openly and sternly singled out Jumblatt in his press conference during the week, accusing him of playing lord to the Siniora government and attempting to spark a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. Jumblatt conceded that Hizballah's military might is unrivalled in Lebanon, and warned the Shi'ite group that it can't impose its will on the rest of the country.

But will Hizballah impose its authority?

The outcome remains to be seen. What we do know is that the one-sided civil war is over. In 72 hours, Hizballah and its allies have humiliated March 14. Some have begun referring to this incident as a coup d'etat, but it seems unlikely that Hizballah will overthrow the March 14 government. However, what is clear now is that it can remove the government from office within a heartbeat, and that is enough to give the March 14 leaders cause for concern.

The country has been in need of serious dialogue and partnership for the past 18 months. Hizballah appears to be forcing the March 14 to sit down and listen to its demands. It will leave a government powerless to make any decisions, a lameduck in every sense of the word. Nasrallah will no longer tolerate a pro-US coalition calling the shots in the country, particularly where it concerns Hizballah. Instead of imposing its will, the Opposition appears to be imposing a form of partnership at the very least, with the Lebanese military at the helm.

Hizballah is aware that it would have frightened large sections of the Lebanese community as a result of this action. The Shi'ite group has survived the past 26 years much on the good PR it has throughout Lebanon and the Arab world. It prides itself on being the only Lebanese faction not to have committed atrocities in the 1975-1990 civil war, or lifted a finger against a fellow Lebanese. The past few days has dispelled that long held claim as it turned its guns against its compatriots. It was indeed well-disciplined and heavy casualties were avoided, but opponents to Hizballah have long feared that the Shi'ite party will use its arms to force its way to power in the country.

Have their fears been realised?

Nasrallah's political decisions in the coming week will be the most crucial decisions in his political career. The fate of the country rests on his shoulder. Hizballah - for the first time - has the overwhelming responsibility of directing the country. Will it repeat the mistakes of its predecessors, the Sunnis and Maronites, in monopolising power? Or will it share and fight to restore its PR status as a benevolent power for Lebanon?

In the first move to win back hearts and minds, Hizballah immediately handed over captured buildings, such as Al-Mustaqbal's office, to a Lebanese Army trailing behind it. This move was more symbolic than a mere military procedure. It was designed to show the Lebanese that Hizballah does not intend to own Lebanon, or impose its will, but instead demonstrate to the remainder of the country that it is a force that needs to be recognised and respected.

Hizballah has also taken notes from the suffering of Gaza following Hamas' electoral victory and its own bloody coup. Despite its democratic legitimacy, the West shunned Hamas and blocked much needed aid and investment to the Palestinian people. Hizballah is aware that if it follows a similar path, all Lebanese will suffer the wrath of a Western and Arab economic snub.

This fear is ensuring Hizballah continues to work collectively with its Opposition allies, particularly its two main Christian counterparts, Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjiyeh. Having Christian backing in Lebanon is a crucial leverage for Hizballah in dealing with the West. They are more or less saying, 'you harm us, you harm the Christians'.

Hizballah will not take full control of Lebanon, but instead share it with its fellow allies, which includes the Shi'ite Amal movement, the Christian parties of Aoun and Franjiyeh, the secular SSNP, the Druze leader Talal Arslan, and the pro-Syrian Sunni chieftains such as Omar Karami. In other words, Hizballah has enough friends to fill positions of power without inviting Western or Arab economic sanctions.

March 14's total demise is a matter of time. Hizballah will not overthrow the government, but will simply squeeze it until it disappears. It is now utterly powerless. There is little anyone can do to resurrect it, save an invasion from a Western or a Sunni Arab power. Neither the US nor Israel is prepared to embark on another perilous war in Lebanon. If there is to be a military response from either of these countries, it is most probable that this time they would target the source ... Syria and/or Iran. Neither country will allow Lebanon to become a Hizballah-run state, which is exactly why the Shi'ite group will carefully seek an inclusive power-sharing system that will be mainly comprised of its aforementioned allies.

Further steps to weaken March 14 don't seem necessary. Instead, Hizballah believes that it has enough popular support across the country to drown out the pro-American coalition. It commands the support of the Shi'ite community, a large portion of the Christian community (thanks to Aoun and Franjieh), and a smaller section of the Druze and Sunni communities as a result of Arslan, the SSNP, and the few anti-Hariri Sunni clans. In addition, the Opposition also retains the majority support of the 350,000 Palestinian Sunnis holed up in armed refugee camps.

March 14 represented an old guard in Lebanon's politics. Walid Jumblatt of the Druze community, and Samir Geagea of the right-wing Maronite Lebanese Forces, are remnants of the 1975-1990 conflict. Geagea's right-wing Phalangist mentality has lost ground and support from its traditional backers in the Christian community. Disenchanted from its defeat in the first civil war, the Christians have moved from a desire to rule the country to a more secular approach of power sharing with its Muslim compatriots. Geagea's rival, Michel Aoun, tapped into this new Christian thinking, and has now become the face of Lebanon's Christians. Hizballah is confident that by sharing power with Aoun, and with no March 14 to contend, it will win the hearts and minds of the Christian community.

But the trust of the Druze community will be hard to come by. Jumblatt is of za'im status among the Druze. His community have vested their entire hopes into this man to the extent that they would follow him to whatever end. Jumblatt is renowned to flip sides often. It was only three years ago that he was touting Hizballah as a legitimate resistance. Nasrallah will shrink the influence of Jumblatt, silence his rhetoric, and perhaps force a reconciliation between him and Hizballah's Druze ally, Talal Arslan.

Hizballah's major battle for hearts and minds will be the Sunnis of Lebanon. Before Rafik al-Hariri's death, the Sunnis were great admirers of Hizballah, and equal beneficiaries of the combined Syrian-Saudi hegemonic partnership that prevailed in the 1990s. The Sunnis were fervent supporters of the resistance against Israel, and equally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The Sunnis and Shi'ites shared similar ideals on Lebanon's political landscape, with both communities engaged in the left-wing and Arabist movements throughout the 1950s and 60s.

However, the warm relationship was quickly turned upside down following Hariri's assassination and the sharp rise in tension between the Sunni chief state Saudi Arabia and its Shi'ite equivalent Iran. The Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq didn't help the cause either. Suddenly, what was a 'Muslim camp' quickly disintegrated into a Sunni vs Shi'ite political feud. Hizballah bemoaned the growing distance between itself and Lebanon's Sunnis, despite Nasrallah remaining the most popular figure among the Sunni Arab public outside of the country.

But it is worth noting that Sunni support for Saad Hariri became apparent only after his father's death. At the time of the assassination, the Sunnis felt threatened and that they were being targeted in the country. The Sunni community has long been fractured by competing clans and large families, much like the Christians, but for the first time they found themselves attracted to a single sect leader, and to a commonality.

Rafik al-Hariri originated from the Sunni city of Sidon in the south, and built his prestige and power in the highly secular Sunni West Beirut. That largely alienated the Sunni communities in Tripoli and the north of the country, which held more traditional customs, were more strict in their adherence to Islam, and held close ties to Syria. Sunni residents on the northern fringes of Lebanon would rely on the Syrian towns across the border for their livelihoods, and were much detached from the Hariri world of West Beirut.

Hariri supporters in Beirut have long stated that Rafik al-Hariri had attempted to reconstruct Tripoli as he did Beirut, but his overtures were constantly rejected by then Tripolite Sunni strongman, Omar Karami.

The death of Hariri was met with great investment into the Sunni regions in the north, and money was being poured from Saad Hariri into the pockets of poor families. Hariri needed the respect of the impoverished northern Sunni regions to become the spokesman of Sunnis in Lebanon. Hizballah is hoping that the support of northern Sunnis for Hariri is simply a matter of finances and not conviction. If Hizballah and its allies do reach power, which is becoming increasingly likely, it will need to provide services to these impoverished regions if it is to defeat Hariri's money machine, and break his claim to the title of leader of all Sunnis in Lebanon.

The short, but violent civil war of the past three days will be followed by a grander civil war that may take years ... a civil war for hearts and minds. For it is only with the trust of the Lebanese people can Hizballah truly rule this country.