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Monday, March 07, 2005

What's Happening in Lebanon

An Interview with Fadi K. Agha, Foreign Policy Advisor to President Emil Lahoud

Mr. Fadi K. Agha is a foreign policy adviser to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. I conducted the following interview with him via email following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the resignation of his successor, Omar Karami. The capitalizations/emphases are his, and this is completely unedited.

Q: Lebanon is a complex society, about 40% Christian, 40% Shiite Muslim, the rest Sunni Muslim, Druze, etc. For those unfamiliar with the country, could you say something about the historical relationships between these communities and their ties with the former colonial power, France, and with Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and so on?

A: Let me just say that, regardless of what a Lebanese would think of Lebanon as a Nation, whether it was "carved out," "gerrymandered" by the French mandating power, or "rightfully" bequeathed on the deserving Maronites, they came to agree on a Lebanon's "final status" as an Arab country well within its actual boundaries. It took2 major civil conflagrations (1958 and 1975) and many civil skirmishes for the Lebanese to finally come to terms at Taef in 1989. The relationship between the sects of Lebanon remains that between the "dominant," the "newly assertive" and the "intolerably assertive." This relationship will remain precarious as long as Lebanon remains a purely sectarian domain. Cohesion in Lebanon will remain oh so elusive, as long as the opportunistic, highly corrupt and self serving communities' leaders perpetrate this system of sectarian spoils. I would add that many of the leaders of the so called "Cedar Revolution" (a term coined in Washington) are those who took Lebanon to 17 years of civil strife.

Q: The point driven home relentlessly by the Bush administration, and echoed in the U.S. press, is that Syria must get out of Lebanon. Why are 14 or 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, and what do Lebanese in various communities think about their presence?

A: The remaining Syrian troops in Lebanon (out of a 45,000 contingent) were part of a peace keeping force that entered Lebanon at the REQUEST OF THE LEBANESE GOVERNMENT, and ended the civil war in Lebanon. They have since 1990 been gradually diminished by a series of withdrawals. These withdrawals were determined and conducted by joint Lebanese and Syrian authorities, as they fit the needs of both countries. A vociferous minority has always opposed the presence of Syrian forces (making much less of a deal when ISRAEL OCCUPIED parts of Lebanon.) Today, this minority has seen its ranks swell by the joining of a few opportunists who were until YESTERDAY the beneficiaries of Syrian "largesse." They have seen the wagons are circling, and are hoping to live for another day. These are the same warlords, sectarian barons and opportunists who lead us once before to ruin. They have aligned themselves with the sincere "boy scouts," exploiting their grief and concerns. Since day one of his presidency, President Assad has committed himself to withdrawing the troops from Lebanon, and we have since seen a series of withdrawals. The remaining contingent's withdrawal was very much on the table, but it's timing is determined by the leaderships in Beirut and Damascus.

Q: Why do you suppose that France, at loggerheads with the U.S. over the Iraq invasion, cosponsored UN Security Council resolution 1559, implicitly demanding withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon?

A: For France, it was obviously an opportunity to "manage" the crisis with the United States, while recapturing some of the lost luster of their Middle East presence. This comes against a background of lost dominions in Africa, and amid a growing American unilateralism. The US, on the other hand, gained a much needed support, a sort of fence mending, when only yesterday the UN declared the War in Iraq "illegal" and France spearheaded a world opposition to the US adventure in Iraq. However, if one wants to play Devil's advocate, we have to remind ourselves that France's "laundry list" includes only one item: Lebanon, while the US's is wide, complex and subject to "variance."

Q: To some of us, it looks like the U.S. is looking for excuses to produce "regime change" in Damascus, and the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon is just one such excuse. What do you think?

A: I hate to agree here, but the inexplicable and ever increasing animosity towards Syria, is leading many to believe that the "decision to harm" has been taken in the US Administration. It is the US that has suspended ALL SECURITY cooperation as it pertains to the Iraqi theater, even against the advice of the top American brass, preferring to up the tempo on Hezballah (also) to do Israel's bidding. I recall that ONLY TWO YEARS ago, President Chirac of France (from the pulpit of the Lebanese Parliament) lauded the Syrian presence a very positive element, and said that Syrian troops should withdraw only when a comprehensive peace settlement is reached in the area. Basically, you are right, Syrian troops in Lebanon are a multi pronged excuse.

Q: There've been some large demonstrations in Lebanon, well-reported in the U.S. press, demanding a Syrian pullout and a new government. We know that U.S. NGOs and official bodies have been deeply involved in what are depicted as "democratic" upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. Do you see any foreign hand in these demonstrations?

A: Images of American and French Presidents, Ambassadors and envoys running the full gamut of the so called opposition leaders in Beirut and elsewhere, are pretty reminiscent of the days of China's "privileges and concessions." Listen. Until today, Lebanon remain a country where the fate of the liberties and rights (so dear to the US) fares much BETTER than in any country in the Middle East, Israel included. Such "items" as open economy, women empowerment, freedom of the press ... are leaps and bounds ahead of other Arab countries where cosmetic reforms are sources of praise in Washington. This leads us to one conclusion: The daily harassment is beyond the presence of Syrian troops, beyond civil liberties ... It is the ulterior motives that disturb us.

Q: I believe that the initial Syrian deployment was requested by or welcomed by the Christian community. Is that right?

A: Absolutely. The Christians were on the verge of defeat. Guided by realpolitik and by a belief that any alteration in the fragile Lebanese fabric, would have dire consequences for Lebanon, Syria and the REGION AS A WHOLE, Syrian troops entered Lebanon to correct an aberration. What a few in Lebanon seem to ignore today is that, Syria is not a "waste management" service, and that Syria and its Lebanese allies are seeing and hearing sounds and images reminiscent of 1975.

Q: Why were the Syrians welcomed?

A: The Syrian initial intervention in 1976 was a blessed endeavor by all international and regional powers. It was an Arab and American recognition of Syria's strategic interests As SYRIA PERCEIVES THEM, and later, an acceptance of a Syrian exclusive role when it comes to the safeguard of a cohesive and peaceful Lebanon. The Syrians tried very hard (and to a certain extent, were successful) in stabilizing the war torn country, by preventing the (imminent) military defeat of the so called Christian forces. The preservation of an equilibrium remains a top priority for Syria in Lebanon. However, there are those "opportunists" few who believe that an American Tsunami is overtaking the Region with a strong "neo-conservative anti-Syrian" bias, and who are seeing in this an occasion to turn back the clock.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Israeli involvement in Lebanon, and the current state of relations with your southern neighbor?

A: Israel on the other hand, has always mounted murderous, unprovoked campaigns against Lebanon, culminating in a full scale invasion in 1982. You have to remember that Lebanon still "hosts" over 350,000 Palestinian refugees, adding further tear to the Lebanese social fabric. Our current relations with Israel, is that between an aggressor and aggressed. Israel STILL occupies Lebanese territories in the Shebaa Farms, still performs all types of incursions into Lebanese territory, while its secret services are still hard at work in their attempts to undermine our stability.

Q: What is the general sentiment in Lebanon towards the U.S. at this point?

A: Borrowing from a brilliant Lebanese Journalist, Joseph Samaha who writes in the Lebanese daily As Safir, he likened the attempt to transfer Lebanon from its Camp A (rejecting American hegemony) to Camp B (affiliation with Pax Americana, with ALL ITS ULTERIOR MOTIVES) to "a fast moving river." It would be rather easy to imagine what the folks in Camp A feel towards the US, its disastrous involvement in Iraq and its endemic bias towards Israel in its continued occupation of Arab lands. However, Camp B includes a large majority of sincere (and exploited) "boy scouts," who are unfortunately lexpolited by a horde of highway robbers. Unfortunately, it is mostly in these opportunistic sectarian warlords, that America finds its springboard towards a "new Middle East." The Lebanese in general have never felt enmity towards the United States. However, "weary and distrustful" cannot begin to describe their feelings towards the US's foreign policy. If this is how the US believes it will win "hearts and minds" in our Region, then it better num these minds because it will not find many takers. However, we are still hopeful (no harm here) that saner heads in the US Administration (and they DO EXIST) will prevail. One day.

Q: President Lahoud must be under considerable pressure, represented in the western press as a Syrian puppet at a time when Syria is labeled an "outpost of tyranny." Could you please explain how he himself sees his position?

A: President Lahoud has been a subject for political sniping since his election in 1998, and that for many reasons. Firstly, the President is a staunchly secular man in a country ruled by sectarian warlords. Secondly, the numerous tries to "coopt" the President (when he was Commander of the Armed Forces) have failed miserably. Thirdly, the President remains a most sincere Arab nationalist, at a time when the breed is under siege. Fourthly, the President has hedged his bets and gone out of his way to protect the "national resistance" against Israeli occupation. This culminated in an Israeli withdrawal in 2000'. It should be noted that this was the first time ever, that Israel withdrew from Arab territories "UNDER DURESS." Today, when the "whirling Dervishes" of hegemony have reached an unprecedented tempo, President Lahoud has become enemy number one. He remains a major obstacle to the hegemons designs, hardly a trait of puppets. However, I can say that the shadow puppets of the hegemons are precisely those figures who are calling for his resignation.

Q: The Lebanese Shiite organization Hizbollah is characterized by the U.S. government and corporate press as "terrorist," which is a way of associating it with al-Qaeda. How would you describe that organization, to Americans who don't know much about the Middle East?

A: The US's qualms with Hezbollah are purely a product of bias. This is a political party with the biggest constituency, part and parcel of the Lebanese polity. Characterizing it as "terrorist" is characterizing over 1.8 million Lebanese citizens as "supporters of terrorism." Hezbollah's achieved what ALL OTHER Lebanese parties never tried. It refrained from entering the fray of Lebanon's political stampede, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, it lead to the first Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands UNDER DURESS. This, and the fact that Hezbollah has been emblematic of a "culture of resistance" in the Middle East, has never been forgiven.

Q: Some of us who've followed the neocons (top-ranking of whom is perhaps Paul Wolfowitz) think they have a plan to topple, one by one, the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia---not necessarily in that order. Do you, and/or President Lahoud, share that assessment?

A: Incidentally, one of the leaders of the so called "opposition," namely Mr. Walid Jumblat, was not so long ago, if I recall, very vitriolic about Mr. Wolfowitz. With a strike of a magical wand, Mr. Jumblat (still persona non grata in the US) has become Washington's long shot horse. The gods of neo-conservatism move in mysterious ways. But seriously, one does not have to go far back in time to get a glimpse of Washington Hawkish thinking. "Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" dispels any notion that today's US Foreign Policy is NOT guided by those who seek to "solve" Israel's "problems." Basically, this would be achieved by "rolling back ... destabilizing" Israel's threatening neighbors. Closer to home, and after "doing Iraq," it spells the steps for Israel vis-a-vis Syria and Lebanon when it calls upon Israel to seize the "strategic initiative along its borders by engaging Syria Hizballah and Iran." With American presence on Syria's borders in Iraq, Israel hopes that US blood and money would do the trick. As I recall, a great American journalist and patriot told me that when the US boots entered Baghdad, Israel's foreign minister silvan Shalom called him to tell him this was "indeed a glorious day in Israel, because America was ALSO to the east of Israel."

Q: Most Americans don't recall very clearly the Reagan-era intervention of U.S. troops in Lebanon, that led to disaster. Your thoughts on that episode?

A: It took us decades to revive, reunite and solidify our Armed Forces in Lebanon. But one has to remember that in 1984, a nucleic Lebanese Army took the bait of a highly unpopular (American blessed) adventure, and in order to subdue the "Shiites" forces in South Beirut, the Army shelled the suburbs, becoming the SOLE casualty of this American mis-adventure as it splinted along sectarian lines. In a nutshell, we need to remember that the last time "anyone" tried to shove a solution down the throat of the Lebanese, without reaching a National consensus, it lead to disaster. We are seeing such attempts today with the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, and its most DANGEROUS stipulation, namely the disarming of our National Resistance. Needless to say, that the Lebanese are also NOT entirely united on the mechanisms and schedules of a Syrian military withdrawal, as MANY in the so called "opposition" have selectively read the Taef Accords, when in reality it calls for withdrawals to coincide with reforms and the ABOLITION of political sectarianism.

Q: Could you characterize the present relationship between Lebanon, Syria and Iran? Both Lebanon and Syria are secular societies, while Iran is an Islamic republic. What interests do you have in common?

A: With Syria, Lebanon shares a plethora of historical, social, cultural, familial and geographic commonalities. It is certainly a unique relationship. Most Lebanese, few even in the opposition understand these factoids well. However, there are also those emboldened few who found commonalities with the American siege of Syria to implement shortsighted agendas. They believe that once the Tsunami (American) waves have receded, they will go back dividing the sectarian spoils, concluding (perhaps too well) that the US's qualms with Syria have nothing to do with Democracy and Liberty.

Q: Why did Prime Minister Karami resign? Apparently he took even members of his own party by surprise.

A: PM Karami's resignation came rather swiftly, when he was geared to prevail in the vote of Confidence. The PM acted on an impulse, having been subjected to a relentless campaign of vilification since Day 1. In a nutshell, PM Karami became "sensitive" to the fact that PM Hariri's assassination happened during his watch. It was his way in trying to diffuse the volatile situation that arose after the assassination. What is striking here, is the speed of the US response to the PM's resignation. He believes that by qualifying the resignation (within less than an hour) as a "positive" event, shows, without a shred of a doubt that the US is "once again" taking sides in Lebanon.

Q: Israel is attributing the recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv to Islamic Jihad, and asserting (rightly or wrongly) that since Damascus supports Islamic Jihad, Syria is responsible. If Israel again attacks Syria, as it did in October 2003, how would the Lebanese government and people react?

A: Tel Aviv, will not miss an opportunity to blame any calamity that befalls it on Syria and Hezballah. The sad part is that Israel produces "evidences" that are always "bought" in Washington. Listen, Israel remains the only world occupying force who gets away with murder. Constantly blaming Syria, Hezbollah ... is a sorry attempt by Tel Aviv to shift the blame for its unsuccessful policy of "security first." Basically, one need not be a wizard to determine that a despaired people, a humiliated people a people in CONSTANT MOURNING, will go to any length in extracting vengeance from those who dislocate , humiliate and murder his brethren.

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

Neo-Con Agenda: Iran, China, Russia, Latin America ...

An influential foreign-policy neo-conservative with longstanding ties to top hawks in the administration of President George W Bush has laid out what he calls ''a checklist of the work the world will demand of this president and his subordinates in a second term.''

The list, which begins with the destruction of Fallujah in Iraq and ends with the development of ''appropriate strategies'' for dealing with threats posed by China, Russia and ''the emergence of a number of aggressively anti-American regimes in Latin America,'' also calls for ''regime change'' in Iran and North Korea.

The list's author, Frank Gaffney, the founder and president of the Centre for Security Policy (CSP), also warns that Bush should resist any pressure arising from the anticipated demise of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to resume peace talks that could result in Israel's giving up ''defensible boundaries.''

While all seven steps listed by Gaffney in an article published Friday morning in the 'National Review Online' have long been favoured by prominent neo-cons, the article itself, 'Worldwide Value', is the first comprehensive compilation to emerge since Bush's re-election Tuesday.

It is also sure to be contested, not just by Democrats who, with the election behind them, are poised to take a more anti-war position on Iraq, but by many conservative Republicans in Congress. They blame the neo-cons for failing to anticipate the quagmire in Iraq and worry their grander ambitions, like those expounded by Gaffney, will bankrupt the Treasury and break an already-overextended military.

Yet its importance as a road map of where neo-conservatives -- who, with the critical help of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, dominated Bush's foreign policy after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon -- want U.S. policy to go, was underlined by Gaffney's listing of the names of his friends in the administration who he said, ''helped the president imprint moral values on American security policy in a way and to an extent not seen since Ronald Reagan's first term.''

In addition to Cheney and Rumsfeld, he cited the most clearly identified -- and controversial -- neo-conservatives serving in the administration: Cheney's chief of staff, I Lewis ''Scooter'' Libby; his top Middle East advisors, John Hannah and David Wurmser; weapons proliferation specialist Robert Joseph and top Mideast aide Elliott Abrams, on the National Security Council (NSC).

Also on the roster are: Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith; Feith's top Mideast aide William Luti, in the Pentagon; Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, and for global issues, Paula Dobriansky at the State Department.

Virtually all of the same individuals have been cited by critics of the Iraq War, including Democratic lawmakers and retired senior foreign service and military officials, as responsible for hijacking the policy and intelligence process that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Indeed, in a lengthy interview about the war on the most-watched public-affairs TV programme, '60 Minutes', last May, the former head of the U.S. Central Command and Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief Middle East envoy until 2003, retired Gen Anthony Zinni, called for the resignation of Libby, Abrams, Wolfowitz and Feith, as well as Rumsfeld, for their roles in the attack.

Zinni also cited former Defence Policy Board (DPB) chairman, Richard Perle, who has been close to Gaffney since both of them served, along with Abrams, in the office of Washington State Senator Henry M Jackson in the early 1970s.

When Perle became an assistant secretary of defence under Reagan he brought Gaffney along as his deputy. When Perle left in 1987, Gaffney succeeded him before setting up CSP in 1989.

As Perle's long-time protege and associate, Gaffney sits at the centre of a network of interlocking think tanks, foundations, lobby groups, arms manufacturers and individuals that constitute the coalition of neo-conservatives, aggressive nationalists like Cheney and Rumsfeld and Christian Right activists responsible for the unilateralist trajectory of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11.

Included among CSP's board of advisers over the years have been Rumsfeld, Perle, Feith, Christian moralist William Bennett, Abrams, Feith, Joseph, former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Navy Undersecretary John Lehman and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director James Woolsey.

Woolsey also co-chairs the new Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), another prominent neo-con-led lobby group that argues Washington is now engaged in ''World War IV'' against ''Islamo-fascism.''

Also serving on its advisory council are executives from some of the country's largest military contractors, which -- along with wealthy individuals sympathetic to Israel's governing Likud Party, such as prominent New York investor Lawrence Kadish and California casino king Irving Moskowitz, and right-wing bodies, such as the Bradley, Sarah Scaife and Olin Foundations -- finance CSP's work.

Gaffney, a ubiquitous ''talking head'' on TV in the run-up to the war in Iraq, sits on the boards of CPD's parent organisations, the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD) and Americans for Victory Over Terrorism (AVOT). He was a charter associate, with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz and Abrams, of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), another prominent neo-conservative-led group that offered up a similar checklist of what Bush should do in the ''war on terrorism'' just nine days after the 9/11 attacks.

His article opens by trying to pre-empt an argument that is already being heard on the right against expanding Bush's ''war on terrorism'': that since a plurality of Bush voters identified ''moral values'' as their chief concern, the president should stick to his social conservative agenda rather than expand the war.

''The reality is that the same moral principles that underpinned the Bush appeal on 'values' issues like gay marriage, stem-cell research and the right to life were central to his vision of U.S. war aims and foreign policy,'' according to Gaffney.

''Indeed, the president laid claim squarely to the ultimate moral value -- freedom -- as the cornerstone of his strategy for defeating our Islamofascist enemies and their state sponsors, for whom that concept is utterly (sic) anathema.''

To be true to that commitment, policy in the second administration must be directed toward seven priorities, according to Gaffney, beginning with the ''reduction in detail of Fallujah and other safe havens utilised by freedom's enemies in Iraq''; followed by ''regime change -- one way or another -- in Iran and North Korea, the only hope for preventing these remaining 'Axis of Evil' states from fully realising their terrorist and nuclear ambitions.''

Third, the administration must provide ''the substantially increased resources needed to re-equip a transforming military and rebuild human-intelligence capabilities (minus, if at all possible, the sorts of intelligence 'reforms' contemplated pre-election that would make matters worse on this and other scores) while we fight World War IV, followed by enhancing ''protection of our homeland, including deploying effective missile defences at sea and in space, as well as ashore.”

Fifth, Washington must keep ''faith with Israel, whose destruction remains a priority for the same people who want to destroy us (and ... for our shared 'moral values) especially in the face of Yasser Arafat's demise and the inevitable, post-election pressure to 'solve' the Middle East problem by forcing the Israelis to abandon defensible boundaries.''

Sixth, the administration must deal with France and Germany and the dynamic that made them ''so problematic in the first term: namely, their willingness to make common cause with our enemies for profit and their desire to employ a united Europe and its new constitution -- as well as other international institutions and mechanisms -- to thwart the expansion and application of American power where deemed necessary by Washington.''

Finally, writes Gaffney, Bush must adapt ''appropriate strategies for contending with China's increasingly fascistic trade and military policies, (Russian President) Vladimir Putin's accelerating authoritarianism at home and aggressiveness toward the former Soviet republics, the worldwide spread of Islamofascism, and the emergence of a number of aggressively anti-American regimes in Latin America'', which he does not identify.

''These items do not represent some sort of neo-con 'imperialist' game plan'', Gaffney stressed. ''Rather, they constitute a checklist of the work the world will demand of this president and his subordinates in a second term.''

Jim Lobe
Copyright © 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved

Is Lebanon Walking Into Another Nightmare?

LEBANON CONFRONTS a nightmare today. As the Syrian army begins its withdrawal from the country this morning, after mounting pressure from President George Bush - whose anger at the Syrians has been provoked by the insurgency against American troops in Iraq - there are growing signs that the Syrian retreat is reopening the sectarian divisions of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

The first Syrian units are expected to cross the Lebanese-Syrian border at Masnaa before midday and their military redeployment should be completed by Wednesday.

To the outside world, this may seem a victory devoutly to be wished: just two weeks after the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri - a prominent opponent of the Syrian presence in Lebanon - the army of Damascus is pulling out of the country it has dominated for 29 long years. At last, free elections might be held in Lebanon, further proof that - thanks to Mr Bush - democracy is breaking out across the Arab world. Iraq held elections, Saudi Arabia held local elections, President Hosni Mubarak promises a contended election for the presidency of Egypt. So why shouldn't Lebanon be happy?

Have we forgotten 150,000 dead? Have we forgotten the Western hostages? Have we forgotten the 241 Americans who died in the suicide bombing of 23 October 1983? This democracy, if it comes, will be drenched with blood - but the blood will be that of the Lebanese who live here, not that of the foreigners who wish to bestow freedom upon them.

Alas, this is a dark corner of the former Ottoman empire - whose First World War defeat allowed the French to create Lebanon out of part of Syria - which rests precariously upon an understanding between its Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze inhabitants. All factions came together to mourn Hariri. But now, at night, most - though by no means all - the demonstrators in Martyrs' Square who have demanded a Syrian withdrawal are Christian Maronites. And yesterday, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the chairman of the Hizbollah Shia guerrilla movement, a loyal if somewhat unwilling Syrian ally which drove the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000, called for a massive demonstration close to Martyrs' Square on Tuesday - to support the "unity and independence" of Lebanon, but also to thank the Syrians for their "protection" of Lebanon in bygone years. Nasrallah invited Christians and every other religious group to join their demonstration. But most of those present are bound to be Shias - who, like their co-religionists in Iraq - are the largest community in the country.

And of course, thousands of Lebanese now fear that when the Syrians do leave, they may be asked to pay a price for this: that in the absence of these "sisterly" Syrian soldiers, civil conflict might suddenly - mysteriously - return to Lebanon.

On Saturday night, a few dozen members of the Lebanese Baath Party turned up in the Christian Sassine Square area of Beirut and two shots were fired in the air. The Lebanese army quickly suppressed this apparently pro-Syrian demonstration (no arrests were made). Was this because their leader happens to be the Lebanese - and equally pro-Syrian - minister of Labour?

How swiftly a Middle Eastern country which had become a bedrock of financial stability and security - even for thousands of new Western tourists - can fall into the abyss. Within 24 hours of Hariri's murder, hundreds of Saudi landowners were closing down their properties in Lebanon - after paying their condolences to Hariri.

The Central Bank has announced that the Lebanese pound is secure; but it has spent almost $ 2bn (repeat: billion) to support the pound, at 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar, in the past fortnight - and Lebanon has a $ 32bn public debt which only Hariri's international reputation might have

salvaged. Then there came Syrian President Bashar Assad's speech to the parliament in Damascus on Saturday evening in which he referred to those Lebanese who were loyal to Syria and those who were on "shifting sands".

Did the latter include Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and erstwhile Syrian ally, who suddenly departed for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and who personally told me that he was probably next on Syria's hit list after Hariri?

A UN team is investigating Hariri's death - Hizbollah's Nasrallah gave them his full support yesterday - and the Lebanese government insist it has searched every nook and cranny for evidence of the culprits. Problem: three more bodies have been discovered at the scene of the bombing in the two weeks since the attack. Hungry cats and the stench of death revealed two of them; which doesn't say much for the detective work of the government authorities so keen to solve the murder.

President Assad said that 63 per cent of Syria's army in Lebanon had been withdrawn since the year 2000 and that the "international media" had paid no attention to this. He was right. Nasrallah, in his press conference in Beirut yesterday, said that American demands for the withdrawal of the Syrians and the disarmament of the Hizbollah itself were "a photocopy" of Israel's plans for Lebanon. He, too, was right.

But here is the real problem. The Syrians and Hizbollah say that Syrian forces are withdrawing from Lebanon under the terms of the inter-Arab 1989 Taif agreement which ended the civil war here.

This called for a Syrian withdrawal from Beirut - already accomplished by the Syrian army but not by its intelligence services - to the Mdeirej ridge in the mountains east of Beirut, and then to the Bekaa Valley and, after talks with the Lebanese and Syrian governments, to Syria itself.

UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for pretty much the same - but also for the disarmament of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement in southern Lebanon, which still attacks the Israelis in the Shebaa farms area, which belonged to Lebanon under French mandate law but which the Israelis have occupied since 1967.

Thus on Tuesday, the Hizbollah will be supporting Taif - because it called for national unity and arranged for an orderly Syrian withdrawal - but didn't mention the disarmament of the guerrillas. The Hizbollah will be against their own disarmament. They will be against UN resolution 1559. And they will be only 500 yards from the Hariri demonstrations.

The Hariri protesters, who at the least deserve to know who killed a man who wanted to rebuild Lebanon and who never had a militia - in other words, he never had blood on his hands - will stage yet another demonstration tomorrow, from the crater of the bomb which killed him, to his grave before the ugly mosque he built in central Beirut.

But yet again, Lebanon risks becoming a battlefield for the wars of non- Lebanese.

For 30 years, America has tolerated - even supported - Syria's military presence in Lebanon. In 1976, both the Israelis and the Americans wanted Syrian troops in Lebanon - because they would be able to "control" the 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon - but now Mr Bush's real concern is Syria's supposed support for the insurgency in Iraq.

The irony is extraordinary: 140,000 American troops occupy Iraq - we shall leave the Israeli occupation forces in Palestinian lands out of this equation - while their President demands the withdrawal of
14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Democracy indeed!

Robert Fisk in Beirut
Copyright: The Independent

Giuliana Shooting, Questions Raised

Italians are furious about the killing of Italian negotiator Nicola Calipari and the wounding of journalist Giuliana Sgrena and a second intelligence officer Friday by US forces in Iraq.

The three were shot at by US forces as their car approached Baghdad airport shortly after Calipari secured Sgrena's release from kidnappers, who had held the journalist captive for a month.

"Nicola Calipari is becoming a hero in Italy overnight," ITN Rome Correspondent, Fabio Sermonti told the Laura Flanders Show on Air America Radio, Saturday night.

Calipari, said Sermonti, "Was a very experienced member of the anti-mafia police. He was very experienced in the area of hostage-taking, and a very valuable officer."

Crowds gathered to greet Calipari's coffin as it traveled from the Rome airport to the morgue. At the San Remo Music Festival which attracts huge audiences every spring, the music was stopped for first time in years, to broadcast a live, video link to the Rome airport when Nicola touched down.

"There was a standing ovation and tears. It is a really big thing here. Everyone is involved." Sermonti told the Laura Flanders Show.

"Italians want an explanation that's a little bit more serious than the kind of joke we've got that these people were speeding. In that car were some of the most experienced officers in Iraq who know how to deal with a roadblock."

While US military spokespeople allege that Calipari's car was speeding, unidentified, towards an Army checkpoint, Sgrena's life-partner, Pier Scolari, told Italian media that Calipari's car was a few hundred meters from the airport and already past all US checkpoints when the attack began.

Sermonti, who spoke with Scolari, says, further, that "Calipari was speaking in English with someone in the airport telling them to get ready [for Sgrena's arrival] when, just as they reached the airport, without any warning, the [US forces] opened fire."

"They're talking about 300 bullets from different weapons," said Sermonti. US military spokespeople say soldiers fired at the car's engine block. "With heavy weapons, bullets fly all over," responds Sermonti. "From the reconstruction of the events, it's a miracle everyone isn't dead."

In addition to the shrapnel in her shoulder, Sermonti told Air America Radio that Sgrena also sustained an injury to her lung.

According to Scolari, says Sermonti, Giuliana had been warned by her captives that "the Americans didn't want her to get out of Iraq."

At the time of her abduction, Giuliana was heading to an area of Baghdad where witnesses from Fallujah are staying to interview Fallujah refugees about the US assault on their city last year. Says Sermonti:

"She had some information about the use of illegal weapons by US forces in Fallujah that was very sensitive. A very hot topic. There were rumors of some use of chemicals and a number of weapons that are not legal -- like [napalm] and phosphorus."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been a staunch ally of the US on Iraq. He defied widespread public opposition to the invasion and sent 3,000 Italian troops. Now, faced with an irate populace, Berlusconi has taken the rare step of summoning US ambassador Mel Sembler to his office. According to reports, he demanded that the US 'leave no stone unturned' in investigating the incident and the US President, in a phone call, promised exactly that.

On the US front, pressure for a serious inquiry has yet to build, and the deadly attack on Sgrena's car grabbed little attention on the Sunday morning political talk shows on TV. President Bush made no mention of the Nicola killing in his weekly radio address to the nation. His first response was to dispatch an acting undersecretary of State to express condolences to Italy's Ambassador.

Laura Flanders is host of The Laura Flanders Show on Air America Radio.`

© 2005 Laura Flanders