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The Liberal Cleric of the Dahiyeh

HARET HREIK, LEBANON — In the dahiyeh, the suburb, of Haret Hreik south of Beirut, where Hezbollah built its command and control center and the “capital” of its illegal state-within-a-state, lives Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, a moderate Shia cleric with a doctorate in religion from Qom in Iran, who steadfastly and publicly opposes Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s doctrine of war and jihad. He uses the Koran and the Islamic religion as the basis for an alternative vision of peace, independence, and democracy for the people of Lebanon.

My translator Henry informed me that Lebanese journalists are no longer allowed to publish or interview Sayyed Husseini. Dissent from the likes of this man is intolerable and has to be smashed. Hezbollah issued its threats. After the two-year spree of car-bombs against journalists, threats from Nasrallah pack weight.

Foreign journalists, though, are allowed to meet with Husseini. Foreign journalists can’t be managed and bullied the same way local journalists can. Foreigners like me are, so far anyway, outside the bounds of car-bombs and murders.

I met with Husseini in his modest apartment in the dahiyeh, within walking distance of the rubble that recently was Hezbollah’s “Security Square.”

Dahiyeh Undamaged.jpg

Most of the buildings in Haret Hreik, at least those that weren’t damaged or destroyed during last summer’s war, look like this one

Henry drove me down there. When we passed under a bombed out bridge that marked the entrance to the area I sneaked a quick photo.

Destroyed Bridge Dahiyeh.jpg

“Don’t take pictures!” he said. “Mr. Mohammad will take us on a tour after the interview. You can take pictures when you are with him. He promised me that we will do this.”

I asked him what would happen if the Lebanese army tried to enter Hezbollah’s de-facto sovereign territory.

“Hezbollah would not let them,” he said. “I don’t think they would fight, but Hezbollah would not let them. Some say the army would separate, that the Shia would leave the army. This may be right. It depends on the mission. Are they going there to fight the Shia? Or for peace?”

Traffic streamed north toward more Hezbollah-led demonstrations downtown. The army was deployed everywhere in Beirut outside of the dahiyeh. Lebanon had, and still has, the outward appearance of a garrison state.

“Mr. Mohammad is a doctor,” Henry said in the car. “In the religion they call him al alama.”

“Which means what, exactly?” I said.

“You heard about the imam Moussa Sadr?” Henry said.

“Of course,” I said. The Shia cleric Moussa Sadr founded the secular Amal movement in the 1970s before he vanished forever in Libya.

“He is also alama,” Henry said. “Mr. Fadlallah is also alama. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is not alama.”

“Nasrallah ranks lower, then,” I said.

“Yes,” Henry said. “You will like Mr. Mohammad. He is a good man.” He laughed when he told me Husseini looks like Hassan Nasrallah.

Husseini warmly welcomed us into his house. He did, indeed, look a lot like Hassan Nasrallah.

Sayyed Mohammad Ali al Husseiny.jpg

I sat on the couch and took out my voice recorder. Husseini sat next to me in his chair. Arabic coffee, cookies, and bananas were served. Henry translated as Husseini introduced himself.

“I am the author of 47 books,” he said. “You can get them in the market.”

“Are those books for sale here in the dahiyeh?” I said, wondering how far Hezbollah’s smashing of dissent is taken these days.

“Yes,” he said. “We have also some English books. The last book published is about violence and non-violence. This is a gift for you.”

He handed me a copy of his book, one whose timing couldn’t better.

Violence and Non Violence.jpg

He then handed me four more paperbacks wrapped in a large brown envelope.

“Thank you so much,” I said and promised myself I would read them.

I turned on my voice recorder and started the interview.

“So,” I said. “Why are you opposed to Hezbollah?”

“First of all,” he said, “I am a peace defender. I have faith in peace. I am against the wars and the violence because of my faith. Any violence, any terrorism.”

“There are a lot of people in the West who believe Islam is a religion of war,” I said. “I don’t necessarily believe that, but many do.”

“Yes, I know. I published this,” he said as he held up his book, “to explain the difference between the religion and those who are pretending to follow the religion. The proof of my words is that Mr. Bush said we must differentiate between the kinds of Muslims. I have faith in peace. That is why I am sitting with you. That I am Muslim and you are Christian doesn’t matter because I believe in peace.”

I’m not religious, but I’m “Christian” in the Middle East either way. Religion acts as a sort of ethnicity there, something you’re born with and can never escape. Most Middle Eastern countries note religion on identity cards. “None” is not an option.

“I believe that plenty of the Western people believe that there are two kinds of people,” Husseini said. “Some who believe in peace and God and some that believe in violence and the devil. While I was in Germany, I met a student. He told me that I am a Muslim, that I am a terrorist. I told him that he is the German, that he burned people. I said Why are you talking to me? I didn’t burn anybody. I told him also that I didn’t terrorize anybody, and that I was the first person to condemn what Osama bin Laden did to America on 9/11. I told him that we, the Shia people, in Iraq we were the first victims. Saddam killed civilian people, he cut off our heads, he blew up our houses. I told him that Hitler burned the Jews. Nobody in the world has done what he did. Then I told him we are the same. You are German, and you are not Hitler. I am a Muslim, but I am not Osama bin Laden.”

It’s extraordinary how the violent extremists of the Middle East have managed to portray themselves as mainstream in front of Westerners. In some countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps at least the passive supporters of Islamists really are mainstream. In most places, though, they are not. Religiously moderate Muslims are easy to find in the Middle East, especially in modern countries like Turkey and Lebanon. But they get precious little attention in the media. Those with the rocket launchers and the self-detonation belts are more newsworthy and get much more press.

“I hope that my voice will be heard in the world,” Husseini said, “to separate between the two lines, the devil line, the killing line, the bad thoughts, terrorism, and the peaceful line, peace and love, living in dignity, all of that. I also hope that the State Department, and other people who can arrange this, if they would invite me and some of my friends to discuss the situation here in Lebanon. They think the Shia people here in Lebanon are all on Nasrallah’s side. That is not right.”

Husseinys Library.jpg

Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini’s home office and library

“Many Westerners believe that Islam and democracy are two separate things,” I said.

“I wrote that question here,” he said and lifted up his book, “along with the answer. What’s the difference between Islam and democracy? The word “Islam” means Peace. It’s all in here.”

“I will read it,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” Husseini said, “it’s for you. Plenty of answers to your questions you will find in my books.”

I read his book, and he didn’t actually address this directly. But it’s obvious after reading his work that he doesn’t think Islam and democracy are incompatible. He clearly favors democracy, and he assumes it self-evident that it’s the best form of government. Dictatorship, he explicitly says, is just another form of violence and terrorism.

“Islam, in my definition, is the religion of peace,” he continued. “It wishes and invites peace and brotherhood and is against violence. There are chapters in the Koran calling for Islam peacefully. The Islamic religion does not attempt to go forcefully, but attempts to go peacefully. We must differentiate between the Islamic religion and those who say they are Islamic. There are plenty of people among the Christians and the Muslims, Michael, who defend Christianity and Islam without knowing what Christianity and Islam are. Terrorism is not Islamic. Islam prohibits it. Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood — Islam is innocent of them. Everyone calling for damage, killing, and blood is not from the religion. It is not from God. This is from the devil.”

“So why is Hezbollah popular in Lebanon?” I said.

I did not, and do not, mean to imply that Hezbollah represents the majority of the people of Lebanon. They do not. Hezbollah is, however, supported to one extent or another, and for a wide variety of reasons,. by perhaps 70 percent of Lebanon’s Shia. Hardly any of Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, or Druze support Hezbollah. Even Hezbollah’s Christian “allies” in Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement insist Hezbollah needs to disarm and give up the jihad against the Israelis. What this means is that around 80 percent of Lebanon is against them to one extent or another.

“The terrorists and bloody movements get support,” Husseini said. “Because my movement is peaceful and non-violent we don’t have anybody supporting us.”

He is referring here to support from outside Lebanon. Syria and Iran have never supported peaceful movements in Lebanon, and Westerners are mostly oblivious to fact that peaceful Muslim movements there (both Sunni and Shia) even exist.

“Hopefully you can help,” he said. “We need support. What did Hezbollah do to become popular up until now? They had four hospitals in the dahiyeh. They had 30 madrassas, or schools. They had 30 foundations for supporting work for the people. Also they bring engineers, doctors, and they have plenty of money. They have a TV channel, radio, newspapers, soldiers. They are a country inside a country, a government inside a government. They have all the money. They have the force to do this. They pushed so hard to help the people that all the poor Shia and some of the rich support them. Also, in the South the same situation. They built hospitals there, and also in Baalbeck. All the Shia places where there are many people they spend money, money, money, money, money. Hezbollah pays for the people to build and repair their houses. So the two reasons are money and services. They use those to gather the people around them.”

How can the likes of Sayyed Husseini possibly compete with Hezbollah’s power and wealth? Most Lebanese Shia are unaware that Husseini’s path is even an option. Hezbollah’s very real smashing of dissent ensures that it stays that way.

“What is the solution to this problem?” I said.

“The problem here in Lebanon,” Husseini said, “is that if we want to change we need an alternative. If you want to remove me from my position, you need to have a replacement, another person. The people who lived in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, they lived on Saddam’s money and Saddam’s services. When the United State army came to Iraq, they didn’t give them the money. Here in Lebanon the Iranian money, for example, is paying for portable water tanks with Iranian flags on them. It is from Iran. If you want to take Iran out of Lebanon you must bring another one with a Lebanese flag on it.”

Hezbollah supporters will tell you that the state has never provided the basic necesities in the Shia regions on Lebanon. There is some truth to this. The problem now, though, is that Hezbollah often prevents the Lebanese government from delivering all of these things. They understand very well that what Husseini says is correct, that Hezbollah buys its power by providing services on their own. They have no chance of monopolizing Shia opinion if they cannot also monopolize community services. They can only build a state-within-a-state if they have their own parallel institutions. Hospitals and schools buy power and loyalty. Hezbollah would be endangered if the government were allowed to step in and do its job.

“All of those people,” Husseini said, “most of them, who go to the protest downtown have no work to do. They earn 30 dollars per day.”

“Being downtown they get paid 30 dollars a day?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “If they had work to do, they will not go down there. This is Iranian money, the green money. Nasrallah talked about it. We must exchange it with government money.”

“But how do you do that,” I said, “if Hezbollah blocks the government from coming here?”

“If we use peaceful means,” he said, “without contact with Hezbollah it will be the best way. Many people come here and ask for my help. If people like me instead of Hezbollah could help them, they would have none of these problems. I am working to create a peace culture instead of a jihad culture. I am asking to go to the States to discuss these matters.”

“How many Lebanese Shia think like you do?” I said. The number is only around 30 percent, but I was curious if he thought it might be higher, or what it might potentially be in the future.

“Every reasonable person thinks like me,” he said. “The problem is they need support in the media to gather a big enough number of people. You have a responsibility to get us noticed in the media. The war began with words. Maybe peace can begin with words. I need your help, and I need contacts with human rights organizations in the West.”

“What do you think of US policy in Iraq?” I said.

“The problem is not with American policy,” he said, “but with the countries around Iraq. America did a good job for the Iraqi people. The problem is not only with Syria and Iran, but a clash between the old dictatorship and the Arab democracy. The countries around Iraq have radical dictatorships and they are against democracy. If democracy succeeds in Iraq it will be a good view for the other countries. That is why they are fighting.”

“What do you think about Israel?” I said.

“From the human side,” he said, “all of us are children of Adam and Eve. We wish to live peacefully all around the world. All people have the right to live in peace.”

“Should there be a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel now?” I said.

Most Lebanese want eventual peace with Israel, but at the same time they want the outstanding issues (and Israel’s existence isn’t one of them for most) resolved first.

“I push all people to go in peace,” he said. “This is what Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad teach.”

“So,” I said, “should there be a peace treaty before or after the Shebba Farms, Lebanese prisoners in Israel, and Palestinian refugees have been resolved?”

“I want peace all over the world,” he said. “So what I wish for the world I also wish for Lebanon. We have seen so much fighting, killing, and blood. More than our share.”

It is worth pointing out once again that when Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to evict the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the border, most of the Shia hailed the Israelis as liberators from Palestinian perfidy. This was their natural default position. The fact that they are Arabs and Muslims did not, as the conventional wisdom would have it, mean they opposed Israel’s existence or wanted to fight the Israelis. Iranian agents infiltrated the region at the same time, relentlessly propagandized against the Israelis, and created Hezbollah from scratch. That is what opened this front in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Are you with March 14, or are you independent?” I said. “March 14” refers to the anti-Syrian and pro-Western majority in the government, named after the enormous rally on March 14, 2005, that led to the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian army.

“I am Lebanese,” he said. “I am with Lebanon. My loyalty is to Lebanon. The Shia sect must serve Lebanon. We were born in this country, we live here, we grow here, we must serve and defend its independence and territories. I love Lebanon, and I am ready to serve my country. A man who does not help his country is not good for anything.”

“What does Hassan Nasrallah think about you?” I said.

“I don’t care what he thinks,” he said. “I care about what God and Lebanon think. I am living God’s teachings of peace and love. I am working to help people. Jesus teaches I don’t care you who are. I care about your suffering and illness. That is why I help you. I believe God is satisfied with my work because I am helping others. Lebanese people appreciate my work because I am working to gather the Lebanese and stop clashes between them. This is the right work for religious men. Religious men who ask for war and blood and terrorism are serving the devil.”

“What do you think of George W. Bush?” I said.

“I thank Mr. Bush for helping the people of Lebanon by getting the Syrians out,” he said.

Lebanese deserve most of the credit for ejecting the Syrians. If they hadn’t demanded the withdrawal of the Baath regime from their country, Bashar Assad would still be ruler of Lebanon. Nevertheless, the US government put enormous pressure on Assad to withdraw, and some Lebanese have told me it was this pressure that gave them the courage to demand withdrawal in the first place.

“How does Hezbollah prevent you from getting media coverage?” I said.

“I studied in Qom [in Iran] because Saddam was still in Najaf [in Iraq],” he said. “Iraqi Shia all had to go there and get their degrees. I wrote two articles in the newspaper talking about the real brotherhood between Lebanon and the USA and asking Lebanese Shia to open relations with the USA. Hezbollah worked to stop my ability to continue publishing in the newspaper. So I rely on foreign journalists to tell the world what I and my friends think.”

“Has anyone ever threatened you?” I said.

“Yes, plenty of people,” he said.

“Lebanese or Syrian?” I said.

“Lebanese and Iranian,” he said, which slightly surprised me. Iranian threats inside Lebanon get perhaps no attention in the media whatsoever. This was actually the first time I had heard of it happening.

He took my hand and asked me if I would please put him in contact with institutions and human rights organizations in the West. He feels, and is, extremely isolated thanks to Iran and Hezbollah.

Here, then, are copies of his business card in English and Arabic if anyone wants to talk to him. He understands some English, but only Arabic speakers will be able to communicate with him over the phone.

Sayyed Husseiny Business Card English.jpg

Sayyed Husseiny Business Card Arabic.jpg

“I want to say one more thing about Lebanon,” he said. “Because of my religion and the Lebanese situation at this difficult time I call for a reasonable Lebanese politics. Nasrallah said he would not have started the war if he knew what would happen. He must know, he must know, he must know that we heading toward war. Everyone will be responsible. I call on everybody to go back from being politically drunk to the reasonable way. Lebanese should not clash with other Lebanese and take the country to Hell. Those who run around the rim of Hell will fall in it.”

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. These trips are expensive, and I have to eat and pay bills. Your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten

The Foreigner’s Gift

I’m still writing The Siege of Ain Ebel. And Iraq is back in the news.

I don’t have anything brilliant, original, or even interesting to say about the Bush’s Administration’s controversial “surge” in and around Baghdad. I am, however, reading a brilliant, original, and interesting book.

Fouad Ajami made himself slightly famous when he published The Dream Palace of the Arabs. (His older book Beirut: City of Regrets is also quite excellent.)

His newest book, The Foreigner’s Gift, was released last summer by the Free Press. It is about, as he puts it, the Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq.

Ajami is a Shia from South Lebanon, and he is a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is of and from the Arab world. He is also an American. Lebanon acts as a sort of bridge between the Eastern world and the West. So does Fouad Ajami. He writes as both an insider and an outsider, so to speak. Or, perhaps I should say, he writes from inside America and from inside the Arab world simultaneously. He sees things in Iraq that most Americans do not and cannot, and he dedicates an entire chapter to what he calls “The Liberator’s Bewilderment.”

I have only read the first third or so of this book. So rather than vouch for it per se, I will publish an excerpt from the beginning. You can decide if you would like to read the rest.

Those nineteen young Arabs who assaulted America on the morning of 9/11 had come into their own after the disappointments of modern Arab history. They were not exactly traditional men: they were the issue, the children, of disappointment and of the tearing asunder of modern Arab history. They were city people, newly urbanized, half educated. They had filled the faith with their anxieties and a belligerent piety. They hated the West but were drawn to its magnetic force and felt the power of its attraction; they sharpened their “tradition,” but it could no longer contain their lives or truly answer their needs. I had set out to write a long narrative of these pitiless young men — and the culture that had given rise to them. But the Iraq war, “embedded” in this cruel history, was to overtake the writing I was doing.

A war fated and “written,” maktoob, as the Arabs would say, this Iraq war turned out to be. For the full length of a decade, in the 1990s, the anti-American subversion — and the incitement feeding it — knew no respite. Appeasement had not worked. The “moderns,” with Bill Clinton as their standard-bearer, had been sure we would be delivered by the marketplace and the spread of the World Wide Web. History had mocked them, and us all. In Kabul, and then in Baghdad, America had taken up sword against these troubles.

“The justice of a cause is not a promise of its success,” Leon Wieseltier wrote in the pages of The New Republic, in a reassessment of the Iraq war. For growing numbers of Americans, the prospects for “success” in Iraq look uncertain at best. Before success, though, some words about the justice of this war. Let me be forthright about the view that runs through these pages. For me this was a legitimate and, at the beginning, a popular war that issued out of a deep American frustration with the “road rage” of the Arab world and with the culture of terrorism that had put down roots in Arab lands. It was not an isolated band of misguided young men who came America’s way on 9/11. They emerged out of the Arab world’s dominant culture and malignancies. There were the financiers who subsidized the terrorism. There were the intellectuals who winked at the terrorism and justified it. There were the preachers — from Arabia to Amsterdam and Finsbury Park — who gave it religious sanction and cover. And there were the Arab rulers whose authoritarian orders produced the terrorism and who looked away from it so long as it targeted foreign shores.

Afghanistan was the setting for the first battle against Arab radicalism. That desperate, impoverished land had been hijacked, rented if you will, by the Arab jihadists and their masters and financiers. Iraq followed: America wanted to get closer to the source of the troubles in the Arab world. It wasn’t democracy that was at stake in Iraq. It was something more limited but important and achievable in its own way: a state less lethal to its own people and to the lands and peoples around it. Iraq’s political culture had been poisoned by a crude theory of race and a racialist Arabism that had wrecked and unsettled Arab and Muslim life in the 1980s and 1990s. The Tikriti rulers had ignited a Sunni-Shia war within and over Islam. They had given Arabs a cruel view of history — iron and fire and bigotry. They had, for all practical purposes, cut off the Arab world from the possibility of a decent, modern life.

It is easy to say that the expedition in Iraq is the product of American innocence. And it is easy to see that the American regent, L. Paul Bremer, didn’t find his way to the deep recesses of Iraqi culture. Sure enough, it has proven virtually impossible to convince the people of Fallujah to take to more peaceful ways. It is painfully obvious that at the Abu Ghraib prison some of America’s soldiers and military police and reservists broke the codes of war and of military justice. But there can be no doubting the nobility of the effort, for Abu Ghraib isn’t the U.S. war. With support for the war hanging in the balance, Abu Ghraib has been an unmitigated disaster. But for all the terribleness of Abu Ghraib and its stain, this war has not been some “rogue operation” willed by the White House and by the Department of Defense. It isn’t Paul Wolfowitz’s war. It has been a war waged with congressional authorization and fought in the shadow of a terrible calamity visited upon America on 9/11. Sure enough, the United States didn’t have the support of Kofi Annan or of Jacques Chirac. But Americans can be forgiven a touch of raw pride: the American rescue of Bosnia, in 1995, didn’t have the approval of Boutros Boutros-Ghali (or of the head of his peacekeeping operations at the time, the same Kofi Annan) or of François Mitterrand either.

My sense of Iraq, and of the U.S. expedition, is indelibly marked by the images and thoughts that came to me on six trips that I made to that country in the aftermath of the destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein. A sense of America’s power alternated with thoughts of its solitude and isolation in an alien world. The armies and machines — and earnestness — of a great foreign power against the background of a big, impenetrable region: America could awe the people of the Arab-Muslim world, and that region could outwit and outwait American power. The foreign power could repair the infrastructure of Iraq, and the insurgents could wreck it. America could “stand up” and train civil defense and police units, and they could disappear just when needed. In its desire to redeem its work, America could entertain for Iraqis hopes of a decent political culture, and the enemies of this project could fall back on a bigotry sharpened for combat and intolerance. Beyond the prison of the old despotism, the Iraqis have found the hazards and uncertainties — and promise — of freedom. An old order of dominion and primacy was shattered in Iraq. The rage against this American war, in Iraq itself and in the wider Arab world, was the anger of a culture that America had given power to the Shia stepchildren of the Arab world — and to the Kurds. This proud sense of violation stretched from the embittered towns of the Sunni Triangle in western Iraq to the chat rooms of Arabia and to jihadists as far away from Iraq as North Africa and the Muslim enclaves of Western Europe.

In the way of people familiar with modern canons of expression — of things that can and cannot be said — the Arab elites were not about to own up in public to the real source of their animus toward this American project. The great Arab silence that greeted the terrors inflicted on Iraq by the brigades of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gave away the wider Arab unease with the rise of the Shia in Iraq. For nearly three years, that Jordanian-born terrorist brought death and ruin to Iraq. There was barely concealed admiration for him in his native land and in Arab countries beyond. Jordan, in particular, showed remarkable sympathy for deeds of terror masquerading as Islamic acts. In one Pew survey, in the summer of 2005, 57 percent of Jordanians expressed support for suicide bombings and attacks on civilians. It was only when the chickens came home to roost and Zarqawi’s pitiless warriors struck three hotels in Amman on November 9, 2005, killing sixty people, that Jordanians drew back in horror. In one survey, conducted a week after these attacks by a public opinion firm, Ipsos Jordan, 94 percent of the people surveyed now said that Al Qaeda’s activities were detrimental to the interests of Arabs and Muslims; nearly three out of four Jordanians said that they had not expected “at all” such terrorist attacks in Jordan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s own tribe now disowned him and broke ties with him. He had “shamed” them at home and placed in jeopardy their access to the state and its patronage. But even as they mourned their loss, the old habits persisted. “Zionist terror in Palestine = American terror in Iraq = Terror in Amman,” read a banner held aloft by the leaders of the Engineers’ Syndicate of Jordan who had come together to protest the hotel bombings. A country with this kind of political culture is in need of repair; the bureaucratic-military elite who run this realm have their work cut out for them. The Iraqi Shia were staking a claim to their country in the face of a stubborn Arab refusal to admit the sectarian bias at the heart of modern Arab life.

It would have been heady and right had Iraqis brought about their own liberty, had they demolished the prisons and the statues on their own. And it would have been easier and more comforting had America not redeemed their liberty with such heartbreaking American losses. There might have been greater American support for the war had the Iraqis not been too proud to admit that they needed the stranger’s gift and had the United States come to a decent relationship with them. But the harvest of the war has been what it has been. In Kurdistan, Anglo-American power has provided protection to a people who have made good use of this new order. There is no excessive or contrived religious zeal in Kurdistan, and the nationalism that blows there seems free of chauvinism and delirium. There’s a fight for the city of Kirkuk, where the Kurds will have to show greater restraint in the face of competing claims by the Turkomans, and by the Arabs who were pushed into Kirkuk by the old regime. But on balance Kurdistan shows that terrible histories can be remade. In the rest of the country, America rolled history’s dice. There is a view that sees Shia theocracy stalking this new Iraq, but this view, as these pages will make clear, is not mine. Iraq may not provide the Pax Americana with a base of power in the Persian Gulf that some architects and proponents of the war hoped for. America can live without that strategic gain. It is the Iraqis who will need the saving graces of moderate politics.

Read the whole thing.

I’ll be back with more from South Lebanon shortly.

The Siege of Ain Ebel

AIN EBEL, SOUTH LEBANON — Amid the steep rolling hills of South Lebanon, a mere handful of kilometers from the fence on the border with Israel, sits the besieged Christian community of Ain Ebel. It is often said that Lebanon is a victim of geography; few Lebanese are as unlucky as those who live in Ain Ebel. For decades the people in this village have been caught between the anvils of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hezbollah on one side, and the hammer of the Israeli Defense Forces on the other.

Ain Ebel.jpg

I visited this small town with my American friend and colleague Noah Pollak from Azure Magazine in Jerusalem. Two men, Said and Henry, from the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559 — an NGO which advises the Lebanese government and the international community on the disarmament of Hezbollah — safely escorted us down there from Beirut.

Alan Barakat from the Ain Ebel Development Association waited for us outside a small grocery store owned by his uncle. He agreed to tell us about what happened to his community during the war in July, when Hezbollah seized civilian homes and used residents as human shields.

Alan in Ain Ebel.jpg

Alan Barakat from the Ain Ebel Development Association

Ain Ebel is small, and we walked the streets on foot. I didn’t see nearly as much destruction as I saw in the Hezbollah strongholds of Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras which I visited earlier the same day. Downtown seemed intact. This was not a surprise. The residents are implacably hostile to Hezbollah and always have been. This was not a place where the Party of God could dig in, build bunkers, and store weapons. Ain Ebel was, as they say, a “target poor” environment. That did not, however, stop Hezbollah from using it as a battleground.

“There is a valley just below Ain Ebel,” Alan said. “I will take you there later. Until the army came after the war Hezbollah closed it. It was a restricted military area. They built bunkers there, and stored Katyusha rockets and launchers. When the war started they moved the launchers out of the valley and into our village. When the Israelis shot back they hit some of our houses.”

Ain Ebel Damage 1.jpg

In Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras whole city blocks were pulverized from the air. Some houses and buildings were merely damaged, but many were demolished to their foundations. Nothing remains of whole swaths of these towns but fields of mostly-cleared rubble. Hezbollah controlled Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras both during and before the war. Houses were used to stockpile weaponry and were often otherwise turned into military targets.

Ain Ebel, however, was used only as a place to hide and as a place from which Hezbollah could launch rockets at the Israelis. Katyusha launchers weren’t placed inside houses. They were, for the most part, placed next to people’s houses. Most of the property damage, then, was caused by shrapnel rather than by direct air strikes. Israeli targeting in South Lebanon wasn’t random or indiscriminate. It varied considerably from place to place, depending on what Hezbollah was doing in each place.

Ain Ebel Damage 3.jpg

“No one is helping us,” Alan said. “We are paying for all the reconstruction with our own money.”

“You aren’t getting any of the reconstruction money from Iran?” I said.

“Of course not,” Alan said. “Of course Iran is not helping us rebuild our houses.”

The Iranian government is sending money, via Hezbollah, to at least some Lebanese people whose homes were damaged or destroyed during the war. If Alan is telling the truth, though, that money is not exactly evenly spread.

Reconstruction had progressed more in Ain Ebel than elsewhere, even so. In Bint Jbail the only noticeable improvement was that most of the rubble had been cleared out of the way. Ain Ebel was less damaged, so there was less work to be done.

Ain Ebel Damage 2.jpg

“Were people still living in Ain Ebel during the war?” I said.

“Yes, of course,” Alan said. “Most of us stayed in the village for the first 18 days.”

“Were people were still living in the houses that Hezbollah seized?” I said.

“No,” Alan said. “Hezbollah only took over houses that had no one in them.”

We came across a crater in the middle of a residential street on the edge of town left by an Israeli artillery shell.

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“Did anyone here try to stop Hezbollah?” I said.

“How?” Alan said. “We have no weapons. Some people told Hezbollah to leave, but they pointed guns in our faces. Shut up, go back in your house, we were told.”

At the southern edge of town is an open field with a direct view to the south toward Israel.

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“Hezbollah could have set up their rocket launchers here instead of in town,” Noah said. “It’s a straight shot into Israel.”

“The houses and trees gave them better cover,” Alan said. “The valley below, though, gave them even better cover than the village. If that’s all they cared about they would have stayed there.”

We walked back downtown. I wanted to find at least one more witness who stayed in Ain Ebel during the war.

Noah and I went toward the grocery store owned by Alan’s uncle. A poster on the wall outside warned children about minefields left behind by the Israelis.

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A convoy of French soldiers from UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, rolled down the street.

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Some French soldiers stopped at the same grocery store. Noah badly wanted to ask them what, exactly, they were doing. But they weren’t allowed to speak to us since we didn’t have a permit from the United Nations authorizing an interview.

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A grim-faced soldier placed five bottles of red Lebanese wine — Chateau Kefraya, to be exact, which is really good stuff — on the counter. Noah couldn’t resist making fun.

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“Are those for Hezbollah?” Noah said.

“No,” said the soldier without showing even a trace of a sense of humor.

“Are you going to buy some chocolates, too, while you’re here?” Noah said.

The French soldier ignored him.

I could not help but laugh at the sorry state of French-American relations, even in a place like South Lebanon where we’re more or less on the same side. I quietly suggested to Noah that if he really wanted to tease them he should ask if they were shopping for cheese to go with their wine.

“The French like to spend time in Ain Ebel,” Alan said. “They are welcome here, they feel comfortable. They help our economy. In Bint Jbail some of the residents make slashing motions across their throats with their fingers when they see UN soldiers.”

I felt bad for laughing when I heard that. South Lebanon is a hard place. UNIFIL isn’t allowed to disarm Hezbollah and prevent the next round of war. That would require their authorization as a combat force. But they do what they can within their sharply proscribed limits, and they spend most of their time in a shattered and hostile environment.

Alan’s uncle behind the cash register stuck up for the French.

“I feel safer now with them here than I’ve felt for more than 30 years,” he said.

It was easy to find another civilian who stayed in the village during the war. He said he would happy to talk to me as long as I promised not to publish his name. He didn’t even tell me his name, so he has nothing to worry about. I’ll just call him “Jad.”

I turned on my voice recorder. Alan translated.

“So you stayed in Ain Ebel through the whole war?” I said.

“Yes,” Jad said.

“At what point did Hezbollah come to the village and fire their missiles?” I said.

“During the war they took some uninhabited houses at the edge of our village and stayed there.”

“Uninhabited?” I said.

“Yes, uninhabited. Nobody was there, so they took them. They were eating in there, sleeping in there, and maybe doing some reconnaissance.”

“Did they ever go into houses where people were still living?” I said.

“No,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

I wondered if Hezbollah deserved credit for not encroaching on people’s personal space, but Jad answered that question before I could ask it.

“They chose specific houses because nobody was living there and nobody would know.”

“Did they choose to come to this town for strategic or tactical reasons?” Noah said. “Or was it because it’s a Christian town?”

“Strategically, of course,” Jad said. “It’s a high peak. It is very good strategically. But they could have chosen these parts, these lands…” He gestured with his arm toward the valley below, the place Alan promised to take us next. “It would have been more protection for them than this village. So why did they come here? I think it’s because it’s a Christian village. They do this.”

“Did anybody who lives here try to get Hezbollah to leave the village?” I said.

“We don’t have any arms,” Jad said. “Hezbollah has arms. But there was this incident that happened. Next to a guy’s place they were firing Katyushas — you know, missiles. They were firing from the house. This guy went out and said Please, do not fire from our home, from in front of our house. My father is very ill and there are some children in the house. They came to him and said Shut up, go in your house, this is none of your business.”

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What Jad said closely matched what Alan had told me.

Then he told me something off-the-record. He made me turn off my voice recorder before he would say it. I cannot and will not relay what he told me. But he wanted me to know that the people of Ain Ebel did use clever non-violent counter-measures against Hezbollah, and that Hezbollah has no idea what they did. I know what they did, but he wants it to remain a secret so they can do it again in the future. He did not, by the way, tell me they passed information to the Israelis.

I turned my voice recorder back on, but I didn’t realize until later that it got stuck on “pause.” So I’ll have to paraphrase what he said next.

He told me that 18 days after the start of the war a large group of civilians decided it was time to leave Ain Ebel and flee to the north. They were no longer willing to stay while Israel fired back at Hezbollah’s rocket launchers. It was too dangerous, and Hezbollah insisted on staying and endangering those who lived there.

So they fled the area in a convoy of civilian vehicles. It was safer, they figured, to travel in a group than alone.

On their way out of the village, Hezbollah fighters stood on the side of the road and opened fire with machine guns on the fleeing civilians.

I was shocked, and I asked Alan to confirm this. Was it really true? Hezbollah opened fire on Lebanese civilians with machine guns? Alan confirmed this was true.

“Why?” I had an idea, but I wanted a local person to say it.

Because, Alan said, Hezbollah wanted to use the civilians of Ain Ebel as “human shields.” I did not use the phrase “human shields.” These were Alan’s own words.

Fortunately, Hezbollah didn’t kill anybody when they opened fire. One person was shot in the hand, and another was shot in the shoulder. This was enough, though, to do the job. The civilians turned around and went back to the village under Israeli bombardment.

Alan then took me, Noah, and Said down into the valley below the village, the previously restricted military zone where Hezbollah built bunkers, dug fox holes, and stashed weapons before they moved their operations into civilian areas.

A young man named Victor came along for the ride. He thought it would be cool to check out the area now that someone would show him.

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Alan told us to stay on the road because Israeli landmines might still be around. There are, perhaps, more landmines in South Lebanon than there are people.

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“Did Hezbollah build this road?” I asked.

“No,” Alan said. “It is agricultural.”

Victor spotted some camouflage netting in one of the bushes. He and Noah pulled it out.

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“Radar scattering,” Noah said as he read the tag. “This is American.”

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He tried to cut the tag so he could keep it as a souvenir, but it wouldn’t come off.

The valley did seem like it would have provided better cover for Hezbollah than the village. The sky above was open enough that Katyusha rockets easily could be fired directly at Israel. Camouflaged fox holes and bunkers among the bushes and trees provide much better protection than houses that can be easily spotted by the Israeli Air Force and that show up prominently on satellite and aerial surveillance photographs. No Israeli infantry would want to go into that valley without first softening up the area with air strikes and artillery. It was the perfect environment for ambushes and sniper attacks.

The sun dropped quickly below the horizon. South Lebanon is in the region known as the Upper Galilee. It is not as high as the Mount Lebanon range in the north, but it was high enough that the cool Levantine air of early winter turned frigid as the light went out of the sky.

The funny thing about Middle Eastern war zones is how serene the natural environment often is. Wars in the popular imagination usually occur in ugly places. But the front lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict often look like somewhere that might be popular among hikers and backpackers if they weren’t so dangerous.

“There is a destroyed bunker up ahead,” Alan said as he stepped off the road. “Come on.”

“Is it safe?” I said. “What about landmines?”

“I have been here before,” Alan said. “Hezbollah was here. It should be safe.”

So we stepped off the road and walked toward one of Hezbollah’s demolished fortifications. I walked gingerly and tried to step in the footprints of others.

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There was no sound in the valley but our own footsteps and breath. Alan was probably right that there were no landmines in the immediate area. Otherwise Hezbollah would have dug in somewhere else.

But what about unexploded ordnance from Israeli cluster bombs? Those were still lying around. You might as well have stepped on a landmine if you end up kicking a bomblet on accident.

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The faint cold light of dusk illuminated the sky like a back-lit screen, but all was dark in the valley on the trail beneath the trees. I tried to imagine what it must have been like if Israeli soldiers walked the same path only a few months before. Did they feel like American soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam? Some Hezbollah fighters wore the uniforms of the Israeli Defense Forces. They used night-vision goggles. They hunkered down in fox holes and waited.

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A Hezbollah fox hole

The valley must have been reasonably safe or Alan wouldn’t have taken us down there. But the enveloping darkness and the all-too recent violence made me wonder, although not very seriously, if Hezbollah had really been flushed out and kept out.

The bombed-out bunker was just up ahead under some trees. It was, indeed, very well hidden.

Destroyed Hezbollah Bunker in Valley.JPG

“If I were going to build a bunker, this is where I’d put it,” Noah said.

Nevertheless, it was hit. And it was hit badly. Anyone who was inside during an air strike would surely have been killed. But I didn’t see any blood or other evidence that it was occupied at the time.

We dug through the rubble.

“There was a sink,” Alan said and pointed to the right of the entrance.

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“And here is some cable for faxes and phones.”

“Look,” Victor said. “A lid from a weapons crate.”

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“Dude,” Noah said. “Check out the shower head.”

Sure enough, there was a shower head at my feet.

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It was impossible to tell when the bunker was hit, whether it was at the beginning, during the middle, or at the end of the war. Since there was no evidence that anyone was inside when the strike came, I assumed it was hit in the middle or at the end after Hezbollah had already moved into the village.

I’m not a military forensics expert, if there even is such a thing. But everything Alan told me about Hezbollah relocating to Ain Ebel during the war seemed to add up and match the physical evidence I could see. The valley obviously was used as a military area, and so was the village.

We walked back to the car in absolute darkness and drove for a minute or so. Alan parked alongside an open ditch next to the road.

“The Israelis were here,” he said. “They left some of their food.”

At my feet was an empty can of tinned fish. Some of the words on the can were written in Hebrew.

Israeli Food South Lebanon.jpg

Alan was right. The Israelis were there, recently enough that no one had bothered to pick up their trash yet. I tossed the can of fish back into the ditch, thinking with a grim almost-certainty that they would be back.

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. These trips are expensive, and I have to eat and pay bills. Your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

“So This Is Our Victory”

Victory Photo.JPG

BINT JBAIL, SOUTH LEBANON — I drove to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon to survey the devastation from the war in July, to check in on the United Nations peacekeeping force, and to talk to civilians who were used as human shields in the battle with Israel. My American journalist friend Noah Pollak from Azure Magazine in Jerusalem went with me. We went under the escort of two professional enemies of Hezbollah who work for the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, an NGO which closely advises the Lebanese government and the international community on the disarmament of illegal militias in Lebanon.

The two men picked us up at our hotel first thing in the morning.

Said (pronounced Sah-EED) rode up to the front door on his motorcycle. Henry arrived in his car.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Said said as he shook our hands. “Shall we go in your car?”

“If you prefer,” I said.

It was probably better that way. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hysterically accuses Toni Nissi, the man Henry and Said work for, of heading up “the Beirut branch of the Israeli Mossad.” Best, I thought, to show up in Hezbollah’s bombed-out southern “capital” of Bint Jbail in a rental car rather than one that might be recognized.

It’s not worth taking Hezbollah’s “Mossad” accusation seriously. Nasrallah also says Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is a “Zionist hand” because he is pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

“Let me drive,” Said said. “It is better. We know the best roads to take.”

Toni insisted these guys were the best. Not only do they know their way around the back roads of South Lebanon, they are battle-hardened infantry veterans of Lebanon’s civil war. I seriously doubted we would need their services as trained killers, but it was nice to have that skill set in our back pockets while venturing into the heartland of an illegal warmongering militia. Every Lebanese person I know insists Hezbollah won’t actually harm American journalists, and I believe them. It has been a while since Hezbollah has violently terrorized Western civilians in Lebanon. But the very same people strongly insisted Noah and I not go to the South by ourselves.

Normally you can drive from Beirut to the fence on the Israeli border in just over two hours. Lebanon, though, isn’t normal right now, especially not in the South. The Israeli Air Force bombed most, if not all, the bridges on the coastal highway. Reconstruction moved along quickly enough, but snarled traffic had to be re-routed around the construction sites, at times onto side roads that were too narrow and small to handle the overflow.

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A bridge destroyed by the Israeli Air Force under reconstruction

“What do you think about Israel’s invasion in July?” I asked Said and Henry.

“Of course what Israel did wasn’t good,” Said said. “They only care about themselves. Hezbollah doesn’t pay taxes, so the rest of us have to pay for all the infrastructure the Israelis destroyed.”

“What do you think about Israel in general?” I said. “Aside from the war in July?”

“I have nothing against Israel,” Henry said. “They are good people and they do good for themselves. We need to make peace with everyone. They are open-minded people, but we have no way to communicate with them since the Syrians came.”

“I would love to visit the Holy Land,” Said said. “My mother went there when the border was open before 2000. It is a good place. If you want to make peace with people, you can make peace, especially with the Israelis. They just want to live in their country, so it is no problem.”

“Is UNIFIL doing much in the South?” Noah asked from the back seat.

Noah in Back Seat.jpg

Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is widely assumed to be doing little aside from impotently standing around while Hezbollah reconstitutes its weapon stocks for the next round of war.

“The multinational forces don’t have the authority to stop Hezbollah unless they are smuggling weapons out in the open,” Said said. “The Lebanese army is not taking sides because of the volatile political situation and the violent clashes taking place in Beirut.”

The Lebanese army has actually confiscated a small amount of Hezbollah’s weapons smuggled in from across the Syrian border. One of Hassan Nasrallah’s recent demands is the return of those weapons from the army, even though Hezbollah’s existence as an autonomous militia is against Lebanese and international law.

Said is right, though, that the army does not have the authority to disarm Hezbollah. Hezbollah is better-armed, better-trained, and overall more powerful than the army, which suffered 15 years of deliberate neglect and degradation under Syrian overlordship. Some of the army’s top officers were also installed by the Syrians, and they are still loyal to the regime in Damascus. Most important, though, are fears that the army would break apart along sectarian lines if orders to militarily disarm Hezbollah were given. The army split during the civil war, after all, and would likely do so again. More than a third of the soldiers are Shia conscripts. Many are more loyal to Hezbollah than they are to the legal authorities.

“The Lebanese army is partly controlled by Syria, not like before 1975,” Henry said. “Before 1975 the Lebanese army was pro-Western and neutral toward Israel.”

As we left the city and the suburbs behind, apartment towers were replaced on the side of the road with soft beaches and the floppy leaves of banana trees. The weather was still warm and sunny even late in the year. Lebanon, as always, looked greener than I remember it when I am away.

“How badly was the South hit in July and August?” I asked.

Said laughed and shook his head. “You will see, my friend. You will see.”

We passed through the conservative Sunni coastal city of Saida, where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was born, and continued down along the Mediterranean toward the southern city of Tyre.

“What exactly, for the record, do you guys do in your organization?” I said.

“We advise the international community on how to implement UN Resolution 1559,” Said said. “And we try to convince Lebanon to be less conservative, more open and liberal and democratic. We try to convince the international community that most of us are not fanatics, to make Lebanon a good example for everyone. We want to live our lives as free people like you do in the US and Europe. We have a right.”

“The Hezbollah camp downtown is ugly,” Henry said. “This is not us. But it shows the world our differences. Most people think we live in a desert and ride camels and are all Muslims.”

“Hezbollah is trying to distract the world from Iran’s nuclear bomb,” Said said, “by making trouble in Lebanon, killings, dissolving the government, and so on. Can you imagine what Iran would do if they got the nuclear bomb? My God. Even right now they do what they want and don’t listen to anyone.”

A young man stood in the middle of an intersection and waved glossy pamphlets at cars. Said pulled alongside him and said something in Arabic.

“What is he handing out?” Noah said and rolled down his window.

“Hezbollah propaganda,” Henry said.

Said stepped on the accelerator.

Noah tried to grab one of the pamphlets.

“I want one of those,” he said. But the Hezbollah man kept the pamphlets tightly clutched in his fingers.

“He is selling them,” Said said, “not giving them away.”

“Oops,” Noah said. “I wasn’t trying to steal one.”

“He doesn’t care about money or propaganda,” Said said. “He is watching. This is the beginning of their territory. He reports on who is coming and what they are doing.”

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Hassan Nasrallah (left) and Nabih Berri (right) announce to motorists that they are entering Hezbollah and Amal territory.

“Whenever you see something blown up from here,” Henry said, “it is because it was owned by Hezbollah people or because Hezbollah had something to do with it.”

If you’re familiar with Lebanese politics it’s obvious whose territory you’re in just by looking at roadside political adverts and posters. The Shia regions are divided between the Hezbollah and Amal parties. Amal, also known as the Movement of the Disinherited, is Hezbollah’s sometime rival and sometime ally. It’s a secular party that was founded by the Iranian cleric Moussa Sadr to advance the interests of the long-neglected and voiceless Shia, the poorest and most marginalized Lebanese sect. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri is the chief of Amal today, and he has forged an uneasy alliance with Hezbollah and with the Syrians. Berri’s face is plastered up everywhere in Amal strongholds, and Nasrallah’s face is even more ubiquitous in Hezbollah territory. Occasionally you’ll see both Berri and Nasrallah together.

What you rarely see in either Hezbollah or Amal areas are Lebanese flags. The Sunni, Druze, and Christian parts of Lebanon are blanketed with the national cedar tree flag, as well as those of various political parties and movements. Only the Shia towns and villages are bereft of noticeable signs of patriotism.

Another striking difference between the Shia regions of Lebanon and the rest is which kind of “martyrs” are famous. Hezbollah and Amal strongholds venerate “resistance” fighters killed in battles with Israel.

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You never see anything like this in the Sunni, Christian, or Druze parts of the country. Instead you’ll see portraits of more liberal and moderate Lebanese who were car-bombed by the Syrians.

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A poster of Samir Kassir, journalist and activist with the Movement of the Democratic Left, murdered last year by a Syrian car bomb.

Hezbollah glorifies violence and mayhem and murder.

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The severed head of an Israeli is shown held up by its hair on one of Hezbollah’s billboards

In the rest of the country you see appeals to peace and life instead.

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“No War” stickers left over from the conflict in July are common in Beirut.

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The “I Love Life” campaign is intended to counter Hezbollah’s warmongering and “martyrdom” culture.

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A “Wage Peace” billboard in the northern suburbs of Beirut

Last year a series of billboards all over Beirut said Say No to Anger, Say No to War, and Say No to Terrorism. Hezbollah would never allow anything of the sort to be erected in their parts of Lebanon, even though I know lots of Shia who agree with those sentiments.

The majority of the people in the South are Shia, but there are some Christian, Sunni, and Druze villages, too.

“The Christians down here are cornered,” Henry said. He could have mentioned that the Sunni and Druze are, as well. “They have no freedom of movement. They only have freedom of speech inside their own villages. Outside their villages they can’t speak or talk to the press unless they leave the South.”

“They have been a long time under Hezbollah control,” Said said. “It’s the same scenario as 1975, only with different players.”

The situation is eerily much like it was in 1975 when Lebanon descended into 15 years of hell and chaos and war. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization used South Lebanon as a launching pad for terrorist raids into Israel. The Shia who lived there were fiercely opposed to having their land used in this way for a foreigner’s war. Lebanon’s Christians also stridently opposed the use of their country as a battleground by Palestinians. But Lebanon’s Sunni community allowed and even encouraged Yasser Arafat to build himself a state-within-a-state in West Beirut. Street clashes between Christians and Palestinians sparked what eventually became a war of all-against-all that shattered the government and drew in the Syrians, the Iranians, the Americans, and the Israelis.

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“Israel was surprised by the war this summer because they neglected Hezbollah after 2000,” Said said. Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew the Israeli occupation forces from the “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000, and wrongly assumed the Lebanese army would take control of the area. Hezbollah moved in instead and immediately dug in for more war. “Nasrallah will go all the way now unless Seniora and Hariri surrender. Only if they surrender will Nasrallah spare them from the final solution.”

This struck me as a bit on the paranoid side. Hezbollah can almost certainly win a defensive war against fellow Lebanese, but no one is strong enough to conquer and rule the whole country.

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Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini lives on as a poster boy in South Lebanon

As we drove through a small village an imam screamed slogans in angry Arabic from the muezzin’s speaker atop a mosque minaret. It was a sharp contrast to what I’m used to hearing from the mosques in Beirut. There the muezzin’s call to prayer is hauntingly beautiful and genuinely spiritual, as though the muezzin himself is no longer tethered to this world. I miss the unearthly singing when I’m in Christian Beirut and when I’m at home.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“It is about Palestine,” Said said. He listened. “He is saying If we win this fight against the Seniora conspiracy we will only have Palestine to liberate. We won’t have Israel as an obstacle.”

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Shrapnel tore holes through a Hezbollah billboard

“They won’t have Israel as an obstacle?” Noah said in a bemused tone of voice.

“Ha, ha, ha, I like this guy,” Henry said.

A convoy of Lebanese army trucks headed north.

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“One thing we are worried about,” Said said, “is the weakening of the South because the army has to go north. This is part of the plan.”

We ventured deeper into the South, into the steep rolling hills that make up the region known as the Upper Galilee.

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“It’s beautiful here,” Noah said, and kept saying. He had never been there before. “This would be a great place for an artist’s retreat if it weren’t so dangerous.”

“Beautiful country, fanatic people,” Said said.

Most of the villages and towns were more or less intact.

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We did, however, drive past the occasional damaged house or places where buildings recently stood and that now were fields of cleared rubble.

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Dour-looking men stood on street corners and in the middle of intersections and carefully watched all the cars and people who entered the area.

“You see the watchers?” Said said.

“Yep,” I said. “They couldn’t be any more obvious. Can we get out and talk to people around here?”

“I do not recommend it,” Said said. “They cannot talk freely. These watchers will come up to us if we get out of the car, and they will make sure anyone who talks to us only tells us what they are supposed to say.”

Soon we reached Bint Jbail, Hezbollah’s de-facto “capital” in South Lebanon. The outskirts were mostly undamaged, but the city looks now like a donut. Downtown was almost completely demolished by air strikes and artillery.

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“So this is our victory,” Said said. “This is how Hezbollah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs.”

Said parked in the center of what used to be the central market area. The four of us got out of the car. Noah and I walked around, dizzied by the extent of the 360-degree devastation.

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Three severe-looking men walked up to Said and Henry.

“Who are they, who are you, and what are you doing?” said the man in charge.

“They are international reporters,” Henry said. Notice that he did not say we were American reporters. “They are here to document Israel’s destruction of our country.”

The men seemed satisfied with that answer and left us alone. Presumably they would continue to leave us alone as long as we didn’t try to interview any civilians. I was glad Henry and Said were there with us. They were the ones asked to do the explaining rather than Noah and me.

I kept snapping pictures.

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“Oh man,” Noah said. “Some real pain got dropped on this place.”

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The photos don’t do “justice” to the extent of the damage. The destruction was panoramic and near-absolute in the city center.

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Apparently the outskirts of town were not seen as threatening by the Israelis. Most of Bint Jbail beyond downtown was unscathed.

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We got back in the car. Said looked for the road to Maroun al-Ras, the next hollowed-out southern town on our itinerary. The streets, though, were confusing now that many landmarks no longer existed. Only after a few laps around town could Said re-orient himself.

“Three times on the same road, not good,” Henry said.

It looked — and felt — totalitarian in Bint Jbail. Everyone watched us. If Said was right that the locals weren’t allowed to speak freely (assuming they dissented from Nasrallah’s party line) it must feel totalitarian to people who live there as well.

I asked one of my Shia friends who grew up in Hezbollah’s dahiyeh south of Beirut what would happen if he said “I hate Hezbollah” outside his house on the street.

“I’d get my ass kicked,” he said. “No one would do that.”

We reached Maroun al-Ras only a few minutes after leaving Bint Jbail. This was the first Lebanese village seized by the Israeli Defense Forces during the war. The scene was familiar — much of the center of town had been reduced to rubble.

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One site stood out, though. At the top of a hill overlooking the Israeli border stood a mostly intact mosque surrounded by panoramic destruction.

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Israel may have over-reacted in July and selected targets (the milk factory, bridges in the north, etc.) that should not have been hit. But the stark scene on the hill of Maroun al-Ras demonstrated that the Israeli military did not bomb indiscriminately as many have claimed. Unlike Hezbollah, the Israelis are able to hit what they want and they don’t shoot at everything. That mosque wouldn’t be standing if they dropped bombs and artillery randomly in the villages.

“My mother is from Deir Mimas,” Said said. “In July Hezbollah brought their weapons out of the caves and valleys and into the village. My family has a small house there that was burned during the war.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Eh,” Said said. “It’s okay. It is fixed now. Anyway, at first Hezbollah fired their missiles from groves of olive trees. Then they got hit by the Israelis. So they moved into Deir Mimas because the other nearby option was Kfar Kila. Hezbollah didn’t want the Shia villages hit, so they moved into Christian villages instead.”

That sounded right. I recently saw Kfar Kila from the Israeli side. The town is literally right on the border, only twenty feet or so from the fence next to the Israeli town of Metulla. I saw no damage whatsoever in Kfar Kila — and this was one day before the end of the war — but I did hear machine gun fire in the streets ominously close to where I was standing.

The four of us arrived in the Christian village of Ein Ebel just outside Bint Jbail. A man was there waiting for us who would tell us about Hezbollah’s brutal siege of his town in July.

First we stopped for lunch, though, and ordered some pizza and sandwiches. As Said parked the car he turned the dial on the car stereo.

“Do you hear them?” he said. “Do you hear the Israelis?”

Sure enough, scratchy voices in Hebrew came through the crackling static.

“Yep,” I said. “Those are Israelis.”

“We are right next to the border,” Henry said.

We went into the restaurant. Henry and I sat at a table while we waited for food. Said hovered over us, as did Noah with his camera.

Me Henry and Said in Ein Ebel.jpg

“We have been screaming about this conflict for 30 years now,” Henry said as he dealt himself a hand of Solitaire from a deck of cards in his pocket. “But no one ever listened to us. Not until September 11. Now you know how we feel all the time. You have to keep up the pressure. You can never let go, not for one day, one hour, not for one second. The minute you let go, Michael, they will fight back and get stronger. This is the problem with your foreign policy.”

“Since 1975 we have been fighting for the free world,” Said said. “We are on the front lines. Why doesn’t the West understand this? America can withdraw from Iraq, you can go back to Oregon, but we are stuck here. We have to stay and live with what happens.”

To be continued…

Post-script: Please help support independent journalism. I have no corporate backing, and I cannot visit foreign countries and file these dispatches without your assistance.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

Links

I’m working on the first of a series of long essays documenting a road trip to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon. While I’m wrapping that up, here are some links.

ESCALATION COMING: Hezbollah says it will escalate its so-far non-violent push to topple the Seniora government.

THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET: Saad Hariri accuses Hezbollah of “political and intellectual terrorism.”

DON’T BE A SUCKER: Tony Badran explains why even talking to Syria is dangerous.

THROWING HEZBOLLAH A BONE: Israel says Lebanese murderer Samir Kuntar will be released shortly from prison, which will (in theory) eliminate one of Hezbollah’s flimsy excuses for war.

“It’s Like a Phish Concert for Terrorists”

Two Hezbollah Supporting Kids.jpg

BEIRUT — While Hezbollah occupied the Beirut city center in an attempt to bring down the government, I teamed up with my American friend Noah Pollak, who works as assistant editor at Azure Magazine in Jerusalem, and took a trip to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon. We wanted to survey the devastation from the July War and see if we could find civilians who had been used as human shields by the Party of God.

Noah in Bus Stop.jpg

Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

Before we went to the south, however, Noah wanted to meet Hezbollah members downtown. He had never been to Lebanon before, and I was happy to show him around and introduce him to the “party” that fired missiles in our direction when we covered the July War together from the Israeli side of the border.

He arrived in Beirut at 2:00 a.m. His taxi driver took him alongside the edge of Hezbollah’s downtown encampment. Even in the middle of the night demonstrators were out the streets screaming slogans.

“What are they saying?” Noah said to the driver.

The driver rolled down his window and told the demonstrators an American was in the car and wanted to know what they were saying. One of the men in the street came up to the taxi.

“We will cut Seniora,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s elected prime minister. “We will cut him!”

Noah laughed to himself and knew he had come to Lebanon at the right time.

The next day I took him downtown so we could sit and talk with the malcontents and the disgruntled. First, though, we had to stop by one of the Hezbollah propaganda stands so I could buy a “resistance” scarf and go incognito into the tent city. Don’t laugh. It actually worked. All the hostile paranoia I had to put up with from Hezbollah’s security agents vanished entirely as soon as I put a Hezbollah scarf around my neck. The goons with their sunglasses and ear-pieces stopped staring at me, stopped tracking my movement, and stopped getting twitchy when I took pictures. They are strikingly obtuse individuals if wearing a scarf is all it takes to blend in.

Hezbollah Propaganda Stand.jpg

So I picked up a scarf at the stand. Flags, t-shirts, and rear-view mirror ornaments were also for sale. Noah bought the biggest Hezbollah flag he could find.

A Lebanese woman walked by and smirked as she asked us where we were from.

“United States,” I said.

“And…” she said. “You like Hezbollah?” She tried hard not to laugh at us.

“Not really,” I said under my breath so the vendor couldn’t hear. “We just want souvenirs because we think it’s funny.”

She smiled and knowingly nodded.

I bought a Hezbollah t-shirt in Baalbeck last year — because it’s ironic and funny, not because I would ever actually wear it. A Lebanese army soldier watched me hand the vendor five dollars, and he shook his head sadly in grave disappointment. He was twenty years older than me, and I doubted he would understand the flip ironic GenX/Southpark sense of humor. Surely he thought I was a duped useful idiot.

Noah and I paid for our items. I put the scarf around my neck and felt as ridiculous as I must have looked.

Me with Hezbollah Scarf.jpg

Oh well. Hezbollah’s security brutes left me alone, so it was worth it. (Needless to say, I would not dare wear that scarf in any other part of Beirut.) Noah’s complexion allows him to pass as Lebanese (or as someone from anywhere else around the Mediterranean) so his appearance wasn’t a magnet for the paranoid and the suspicious.

He and I walked toward the tent-city and passed an angry-looking group of young women on their way out. One woman narrowed her eyes at me.

“Where are you from?” she said. She looked me in the eye, looked at my Hezbollah scarf, looked me in the eye again, looked back and my Hezbollah scarf. Then she yelled at me: “Are you from the States?!”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re from the States.”

For a second I thought she was yelling at me because she was anti-American. We were at the Hezbollah encampment, after all. But that wasn’t it. She yelled at me because she thought I was a stupid American who supported Hezbollah. (Not everyone who ventured downtown during the sit-in supports the “resistance.” Some were there as horrified onlookers.)

One of the young woman’s friends took her by the shoulders and turned her away from Noah and me. As they began walking away she nodded her head and flexed her hands as though she were trying to restrain herself and calm down.

Some Westerners really do show up in Lebanon and support Hezbollah, or at least get defensive on Hezbollah’s behalf. (Meanwhile they spend all their time in the liberal parts of Lebanon where Hezbollah is hated. So on some level they know who their friends are.) I wasn’t at all annoyed that this young woman yelled at me. She reminded me of a man I met last year while hitchhiking in the mountains.

“Tell me something,” he said. “Lots of Americans come here and think we like Hezbollah. Why? We hate that. We hate Hezbollah!”

So Noah and I walked the grounds without getting any attitude or even attention from Hezbollah security. We did, however, get some unwanted attention from Hezbollah’s fans.

Closed Downtown.JPG

The restaurant district of downtown Beirut was closed by the army to prevent vandalism

Next to the closed-off area of downtown where most of the restaurants are located is a small Roman ruin site. It was discovered for the first time in the 1990s when civil war-era rubble was cleared out of the way.

Noah and I leaned up against the railing next to two young Shia women wearing headscarves. Noah snapped a picture.

Roman Site Beirut 1.jpg

“Look,” one of the women said and pointed down at the ground next to a pillar. “It’s a picture of Hassan Nasrallah.”

Sure enough, there is was.

Roman Site Beirut 2.JPG

Nasrallah Among Garbage.jpg

“Yeah,” Noah said. “It’s down there with the trash where it belongs.”

Noah,” I said under my breath. “No need to be rude.” I did agree with him, though, that Nasrallah belonged in the garbage.

We talked amongst ourselves, about what I don’t remember. I smiled at the two women so they wouldn’t feel bad.

Then an older man walked up to Noah and me. He said something in Arabic, something I did not understand. Then he plowed his shoulder into Noah’s and knocked Noah sideways. He hadn’t heard Noah’s insult directed at Hassan Nasrallah. Nor could he have possibly known our political views. He was just mad because he heard us speaking English. My Hezbollah scarf didn’t ward everyone off. It only seemed to work with the oblivious security agents.

“Hi,” Noah said to him as though nothing had happened. “What’s up?”

I braced myself for anything. Our rude new “friend” said something else unintelligible and stalked off.

“Merry Christmas!” Noah said to his back.

Beirut is a cosmopolitan city when Hezbollah doesn’t squat in the middle of it.

Aside from this guy and two other random hostile individuals, Hezbollah’s camp-out was more mellow than it was the first time I went down there. The passion had cooled. Fewer people screamed slogans. The energy level was lower. Most appeared to have succumbed to some kind or torpor. It isn’t easy to be hopped up on protest adrenaline for several days in a row. Eventually you have to sit down, eat a sandwich, and smoke a nargileh.

Hezbollah Nargileh.jpg

The environment downtown was very different from what most Westerners would likely expect from a civil disobedience movement mounted by a Syrian-Iranian proxy militia.

Mellow Downtown.JPG

Prominent figures gave public speeches to roaring applause, not to bullets shot into the sky.

College students made circles with chairs and held teach-ins.

Patriotic and Arabic pop music blared through speaker towers.

Snack stands were set up all over the place.

Hezbollah Snack Stand.jpg

“Dude,” Noah said. “It’s like a Phish concert down here. Only it’s a Phish concert for terrorists.”

We walked the maze of tents and snapped pictures, looking for someone who seemed approachable enough to be interviewed. Few people paid us any mind, and we sat on a curb to drink a soda and smoke a cigarette.

Three young men walked up to us.

“Hello,” said the first. He introduced himself as Jad. “Where are you from?”

“We’re from the U.S,” Noah said.

“Welcome to Lebanon,” he said. “What is your impression?” Lebanese often ask me this question.

“You mean, what do we think of the political situation?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Eh,” I said. “We’re Americans. We’re not the biggest fans of Hezbollah.” The contrast between what I said and what I was wearing (the Hezbollah scarf) did not seem to register.

“Where are you from?” Noah said.

“From Beirut,” said another of the young men.

“Do you mean the dahiyeh?” I said. Dahiyeh means “suburb” in Arabic. It specifically refers to Hezbollah’s “capital” of Haret Hreik just south of Beirut.

“Yes,” he said. “From the dahiyeh. Have you been there?”

“I have, he hasn’t,” I said and gestured to Noah.

“This is your first trip to Lebanon?” Jad said to Noah.

“Yep,” Noah said and sipped from his drink. “It’s great.”

The five of us discussed Lebanese and international politics. The conversation was perfectly civil and pleasant even though they supported Hezbollah and Noah and I (obviously) did not. I didn’t write everything down, so I can’t quote very much. The discussion was more social and less of an interview. But I did take some notes when Noah asked a very important question.

“So,” Noah said. “What do you guys think of Iran?”

Hezbollah Scarf Interview.jpg

“Syria and Iran are helping us,” Jad said. “We don’t want them to rule in Lebanon. I like drinking and chasing girls and having a good time. We don’t want to be like Iran. If Hezbollah tried to make us like Iran, that would be a big problem for us.”

They were secular Shia. And yet they supported Hezbollah, an Islamist militia that is controlled by an Islamist dictatorship. As a noteworthy counterpoint (and I’ll write much more about this in the near future), I met a Shia cleric in the dahiyeh with a PhD in religion from Qom in Iran who is a strident opponent of Hezbollah.

Counterintuitive as it may be, Islamists are sometimes supported by secular people while facing hostility from the religious. The Middle East is rarely as simple as it appears.

The Shia have long been politically and economically marginalized by the Sunnis and Christians of Lebanon. Hezbollah, you might say, is the revenge of the Shia. Their appeal is much more sectarian and political than it is religious.

Two men heard that we were speaking in English and, once again and for no other reason, felt compelled to come over and harass Noah and me.

“Where are you from!” the first man yelled.

“United States,” I said and looked away from him, uninterested.

He grit his teeth, leaned forward, and jutted his face up next to mine.

“Do you like Bush?” he demanded.

“No,” I said passively.

“Do you like Olmert?” he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister in a particularly nasty tone of voice.

“No,” I said. “No,” I repeated more forcefully. I was honest with him, too. Ehud Olmert is arguably the worst prime minister in Israel’s history. Huge numbers of Israelis agree with that assessment, and even many Lebanese I spoke to said they wished Ariel Sharon (who is seriously hated in Lebanon) were prime minister instead of Olmert.

This guy really looked like he was spoiling for a fight. If I were Olmert’s biggest cheerleader I would likely have kept my mouth shut at that moment. He was satisfied, though, when I said I didn’t like Olmert. So he and his buddy walked off.

An older fat man in a red shirt interjected himself into our conversation. He had the wide open eyes of an agitated extremist. He got into a mildly heated political argument with Noah, who remained calm and collected throughout. I was having my own conversation with the more civil and interesting young man named Jad. I did catch two telling points from the enraged man in red, however, and they bear repeating.

“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!”

This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Israel does not receive weapons from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or any other Arab country. Don’t write off what he said as just another Middle Eastern conspiracy theory, though. He is aware that an important geopolitical shift has occurred.

Sunni Arab regimes — most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia — took Israel’s side during the opening of the July War. And every Arab government in the world except for Syria’s supports Lebanon’s government against Hezbollah’s “resistance.”

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has a new talking point that seems to be filtering down. He’s accusing Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora of being a tool of the “Zionist Entity.” Seniora is continuing the July War on Israel’s behalf, according to Nasrallah, because he’s pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

Seniora gets a lot of grief from commenters in the West for not moving quickly or decisively enough against Hezbollah. Look, though, at what he has to deal with.

It’s also worth pointing out that Al Qaeda accuses Hezbollah of being Zionist tools because Nasrallah won’t allow Sunni terrorists to come into Lebanon and use the south as a launch pad for strikes into Israel.

Six Arab governments — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia — say they will pursue nuclear weapons programs now because Iran’s atomic bombs need to be countered. None of these Arab countries sought nuclear weapons to offset those acquired by Israel. They fear and loathe the Shia of Lebanon and Iran (and most likely Iraq, as well) more than they worry about the Zionists regardless of what they may say.

The wider Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East, whose epicenter now is in Baghdad, may supplant the Arab-Israeli conflict some time in the future. For now, though, the Arab-Israeli conflict is used by both sides of the inter-Islamic divide to score propaganda points against the other.

“We have one enemy,” said the angry man in the red shirt. “The Israeli army. Us and the Yehudi people are friends.”

Hardly any Jews in the world are silly enough to believe Hezbollah are their friends. Israel does have friends in the Shia community, however, even though they are a minority.

This should not be too hard to believe. When Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to evict terrorists in the (Sunni) Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Shia of Lebanon hailed the Israelis as liberators. This was the natural, instinctive, default position of Lebanon’s Shia as recently as the 1980s. It was only after Israel stayed too long and behaved obnoxiously during the occupation, and after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards infiltrated the area and whipped people up into a radical frenzy, that the current Hezbollah-Israeli conflict took shape.

Israel’s Lebanon proxy — the South Lebanese Army — later was formed in the south to combat the “resistance.” It started out as predominantly Christian, but most of its members were Shia at the end.

I was slightly embarrassed on Lebanon’s behalf after showing Noah downtown. He hadn’t met any liberal or moderate Lebanese people yet. Hezbollah would like you to believe that their warmongering and bigoted conspiracy theories are mainstream, but it isn’t so. Even their Christian “allies” in the Free Patriotic Movement part ways with them on this stuff. Only Amal, the other major Shia political party, defends Hezbollah as a militia and a state-within-a-state any more.

No matter, though. First thing in the morning Noah and I had plans to take a road trip to the South, to Bint Jbail and the surrounding region, with serious professional Lebanese enemies of Hezbollah. They were well-trained in combat and they knew the safest roads in the area. It was time to go looking for civilians who were used as human shields during the war. Our time together in Beirut was over.

Post-script: Please help support independent journalism. I have no corporate backing, and I cannot visit foreign countries and file these dispatches without your assistance.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

Interviewed by Hugh Hewitt

I’ll have another long article posted shortly. In the meantime, Hugh Hewitt interviewed me on his national radio show.

Here is an excerpt:

HH: All right. Explain to people what Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon is right now, and this is really chilling, by the way, I must tell you, Michael Totten. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. Your conversation with the young teenagers, your description of their security forces, your detailing of their ambitions, Hezbollah is a menace, and just tell people about it.

MT: Well, basically, like I said before, what they really want, more than anything else, is as much power in Lebanon as they can acquire. And although they are an Islamist party, their main goal at this point, I don’t believe, is to turn Lebanon into an Islamist state, because they know it’s impossible. For one reason, more than a third of the country are Christians, and they will fight them to the end if they try to create Lebanon as an Islamist state. But also, there is the fact that the Sunni don’t want it, either, and if they did, they would be arguing about which kind of Islamist state to have. But also, the truth is that the majority of the Shia also do not want an Islamist state in Lebanon, and they never have. And so, while Hezbollah used to say that they wanted to turn Lebanon into basically, you know, an Iranian style state, but there’s just no way that they can do this, and they’ve had internal arguments about this, and Hassan Nasrallah is actually more moderate than the previous leaders of Hezbollah, and the previous leaders were pushed aside, because they wanted to Islamicize the entire country. And Nasrallah was chosen because he was seen as more pragmatic and more moderate, I mean, moderate, really only compared to who was running the show previously. So what they really want is they want Shia power in Lebanon as much as possible. And the reason, the only way they can get it is to be the only political party in the country that has an army. And the only way that they can justify having an army is if they are in a constant state of war with the Israelis.

Read the whole thing here.

New Comments Policy

If I have never heard of you before and you show up in the comments for the first time and start hurling personal insults I will delete your comment and you will be banned from posting future comments. I will no longer issue warnings to newcomers. Babysitting isn’t my job. Only people who have proven they have something to contribute deserve warnings. Introducing yourself with an eff-you attitude will get you summarily banned, and that’s final.

Hanging With Hezbollah

“If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” — Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, October 23, 2002

Nasrallah with Gun.jpg

BEIRUT — After Hezbollah mounted a protest aimed at bringing down Lebanon’s elected government, several thousand demonstrators remained downtown and camped out in tents, effectively occupying the center of the city. They first tried to seize and occupy Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s office in the Ottoman-era Serail. But Seniora warned Hezbollah that if his office were taken he could not control his “street.” Translation: If you seize the state’s institutions, the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon are going to kill you. Hezbollah knew this was true, and so they backed off. It didn’t hurt that the government of Saudi Arabia backed up Seniora on this point. But Hezbollah’s occupation of the neutral parts of downtown continues even into 2007.

I ventured downtown myself the day after the made-for-TV protest was over, when Hezbollah and friends no longer wanted attention from foreign media. Their lack of interest, if I could call it that, was instantly obvious. Ubiquitous security agents with the tell-tale sunglasses and earpieces stared at me coldly and turned their heads as I walked past.

Hundreds of tents were set up in parks, parking lots, and squares downtown, most of them made of white canvass. I snapped a few pictures, and nobody stepped in to stop me.

Hezbollah Tent City 2.jpg

One group of tents in a parking lot across from the Hariri mosque were all made of black canvas. What’s up with the black tents, I wondered. So I walked over and lifted my camera to my face.

Five ear-pieced Hezbollah agents aggressively pounced on me at once. They surrounded me and screamed “No!” Then they physically pushed me away from the tents and got in my face so I could not see behind them.

I’ve been accused of spying many times while in Lebanon, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this is what the Hezbollah agents thought I was doing. Many Lebanese are paranoid — often with good reason — but no one is nearly as paranoid as Hezbollah. (As a side note, one Lebanese man who suspected I worked for the CIA literally begged me to get him a job.)

“Sahafi!” I yelled back at them. Journalist!

“No, no, no!” they yelled and pushed me away. I lowered my camera, threw up my hands, and turned to walk away. Then they left me alone.

It’s almost always like this or worse when I run into actual members of the Hezbollah militia.

The first time I met Hussein Naboulsi, Hezbollah’s media relations liaison, he was perfectly friendly. But he later threatened me with physical violence because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. On another occasion I was detained for two hours by Hezbollah because they suspected one of my photojournalist colleagues was a Jew. A reporter friend (and I’ll keep his name out of this) was harassed because of an entirely innocuous article he wrote about them for a mainstream left-wing American magazine. Chris Allbritton, who works on occasion for Time magazine, wrote the following on his blog during the July War: “Hizbullah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

This is how Hezbollah treats Western journalists. I’d say I’m surprised more journalists don’t mention this sort of thing in their articles. But most journalists don’t write first-person narratives. Industry rules generally don’t allow them to describe these kinds of incidents. Even though it has been years since Hezbollah has kidnapped or physically harmed Western journalists, some may be afraid to rile up an Iranian proxy militia that is listed by the United States government as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah informed me that I’m officially blacklisted (meaning they will no longer give me interviews or even quotes) for what I have written about them in the past.

Some journalists don’t want to burn bridges to their own access and make their jobs harder. I don’t personally care. Last year I interviewed a high-level Hezbollah official, Mohammad Afif, but it was a useless interview that wasn’t even worth publishing. My translator told me that what Afif said matched exactly word-for-word what Hezbollah says every day on their own Al Manar TV channel. Losing access to these guys isn’t that big a deal.

I walked across the street deliberately in full view of the agents who got in my face, sat down on the sidewalk in front of heavily armed Lebanese soldiers, and furiously began taking notes. I chucked inside as I did this because I knew they could see what I was doing.

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I knew they wouldn’t do anything to me, and I wanted to let them know that their bullying behavior just earned them bad press. (Israelis who hassle and rudely interrogate journalists in Ben-Gurion airport ought to learn the same lesson one of these days.) I scribbled my furious notes, looked them in the eye, scribbled more furious notes, looked them in the eye again, and scribbled more furious notes.

Hezbollah is not half as media savvy as they like to fashion themselves. Harassing foreign journalists may keep some of them in line, so to speak, but it backfires with the rest of us. Bullying writers who are free of the old school media constraints of “objectivity” is a media war equivalent of dropping a hand grenade down your pants.

At least one of the security agents was smart enough to figure this out. He slowly walked up to me.

“What?” I said as I lifted my head.

He pointed at my camera, said something unintelligible, then pointed at the black tents.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I know, I know.” I went back to writing furious notes.

“No, no, no!” he said.

What?” I said, genuinely annoyed now.

A group of six teenagers between sixteen and eighteen years old saw the commotion and came over to see what was happening. One of them offered to translate.

“He said it is okay to take pictures,” he said.

“It is okay?” I said, and completely dropped my affected hostility.

“Yes, yes,” another kid said. “Come on.” He offered his hand and helped me up.

“Thanks, guys,” I said.

“Don’t worry about them,” a third teenager said. “They are handicaps.”

“Come on!” another said. “Come with us! We’ll show you around!”

They led me back across the street to the black tents. I lifted my camera and snapped a quick picture.

Black Hezbollah Tents.jpg

It’s not that interesting a picture. It has no real value. What a waste for Hezbollah to earn themselves bad press in order to keep this innocuous photo from being released into the world, especially since in the end I was able to publish it anyway.

But I almost didn’t get it. Another Hezbollah security agent saw me take the picture and ran up to me.

“No!” he screamed and waved his arms. He menacingly put his face four inches from mine. “How many pictures did you take!” he yelled.

“Just one,” I said.

“Delete it right now!” he screamed. “You were told not to take pictures!”

Who were these guys to tell me what to do anyway? Lebanon is a free country, Hezbollah isn’t the government, and I was taking pictures of a public parking lot.

“No,” I said, “I was just told that I could take pictures.” I looked at my new teenager friends, waiting for them to back me up.

“Yes, yes, it’s okay,” one of the kids told the agent.

“No!” the agent said. “You delete it right now!”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll delete it on one condition…if you tell me why I can’t take a picture. What are you doing here that you want to hide?”

The truth is I would have deleted it without any conditions. I didn’t care about having the picture, and the last thing I needed was to get in a fight with these people. I just wanted to know what he would say when I asked him why he was paranoid. Of course he would have no prepared answer.

“Never mind!” he said as he threw his hands in the air, turned around, and stormed back into the tents.

“What on earth is their problem?” I said to the kids who stuck up for me and offered to show me around.

“Don’t worry,” said the one who had taken my hand. “They are handicaps.”

They are, indeed, “handicaps,” at least mentally. If they actually thought I was a spy (but I don’t know, maybe they didn’t) their behavior would have told me all I needed to know. It’s obvious which part of the tent city houses the leadership and the elite. It’s the one place, the black tented section, where the agents completely freak out if you show up with a camera. If I were to call up the CIA or the Mossad and give them air strike coordinates (or whatever it was Hezbollah was afraid of) all I’d have to say is “aim for the black tents.”

The teenagers who had volunteered as my guides, translators, and advocates, led me to the much larger section of the camp where everyone lived and slept in white tents.

Hezbollah Tent City 1.jpg

“Which party are you with?” I asked them.

“Hezbollaaaaaaaah,” said the lead kid and grinned. “Here, here, take a picture of this car!” They talked and moved fast with the boundless energy of young people on an adventure.

I took a picture of the car.

Nasrallah Car.jpg

“That’s Hassan Nasrallah. Do you know Hassan Nasrallah? He is a big hero.”

“Why is he a hero?” I said.

“He resists the Israelis!”

“Are all of you guys with Hezbollah?” I said.

“Yes!” one of them said. “We are all with Hassan Nasrallah!” They said this in such a way that they expected me to share their views even though they knew I am American. At least they expected I wouldn’t mind that they support Hassan Nasrallah. I doubt they felt any hostility to me personally whatsoever.

“So, what is it you hope to accomplish downtown?” I said.

“We want Seniora to leave,” one of them said.

“We want to fuck Seniora,” said another.

“I know,” I said. “Why do you want to get rid of him, though? What do you want from the government that you can’t get with Seniora?”

“War!” said one of the kids.

“We want war!” said another.

A third kid slapped the second up the side of his head. The slapped kid laughed and pushed his hand in his friend’s face.

I couldn’t tell if this playful spat was because they didn’t agree about wanting more war, or because they weren’t supposed to admit it in front of a foreign reporter. I have met Hezbollah supporters whom I know don’t want more war with Israel. Some of them truly believe that Israel will attack no matter what and that Hezbollah is Lebanon’s only defense.

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“We want to unite Lebanon and have a democracy,” said the kid who seemed to be their leader. He was the most mature and collected, and the others deferred to him with their body language.

“You have a democracy, though,” I said. “You didn’t win as many seats in the parliament as you would like, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a democracy. You can’t always get what you want in a democracy.”

“The American government rules Seniora,” said another. “They interfere in my business.”

“In what ways?” I said.

“America helps Israel against Lebanon and sells them weapons.”

None of these kids wanted to give me their names. I took notes of our conversation, but I cannot tell you who exactly said what. These quotes will have to go unattributed.

“What about Syria?” I said. “America helps Lebanon against Syria.”

“Bush killed all those politicians because he doesn’t want peace in Lebanon.”

“Why wouldn’t Bush want peace in Lebanon?” I said.

“I don’t know!”

“Americans don’t want war in Lebanon,” I said. “It would not serve our interests or yours. Do you think Americans want chaos in Lebanon just for the heck of it?”

“We don’t hate the American people, only the government.”

“Okay,” I said. “So why then does Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly say Death to America?” I asked these questions in the most friendly and casual tone of voice I could muster.

“He only means death to the American government.”

“Why doesn’t he make that clear then?” I said.

“He does!”

“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “He says Death to America. What would you think of George W. Bush if he gave speeches where he screamed Death to Lebanon? Come on, guys. Be honest with me. I want to know what you really think.”

“I want to go to America,” the leader kid said. “I love America and I want to live in America. America is rich and free. I want to be rich and free, too.”

I think the kid was sincere. His politics are a product of Hezbollah’s schools, his community, and his peer group. But politics in the Middle East isn’t as personal as it often is in the West, in part because Middle Easterners are accustomed to having their politics dictated to them by the powerful. Politicians are usually above accountability and beyond control of the people. They assume that’s how it is in the Western countries as well.

Street-level anti-Americanism is sometimes more moderate, complicated, and contradictory than it appears from far away. There is often a vast gulf separating those in the Arab world who incite anti-Americanism and those who more passively go along with it. The difference in temperament between Hezbollah’s bullying agents and the kids who showed me around are just one example.

“So,” I said. “Who do you think won the war in July? Israel or Hezbollah?”

“Nasrallah!”

“We beat Israel!”

“Does that mean you want to do it again?” I said.

“Yes!” half of them said.

“No!” the other half said simultaneously.

One of the kids who said “no” slapped one of the kids who said “yes.” Again, I couldn’t tell if that was because they didn’t agree with each other or because they weren’t supposed to sound like warmongers in front of a foreign reporter.

Most Lebanese will give you their honest opinions, no matter how off-the-wall or crazy their opinions might be. And they’ll do it without showing even a hint of embarrassment. Sometimes, though, I’m not convinced people are being straight with me. This was one of those times.

The gang took me around the tent city and introduced me to their friends. “Check this out! Here, meet these people!”

Hezbollah Tent Gathering.jpg

“Look at that crane. Take a picture of that!”

Hezbollah Crane.jpg

“There’s Nasrallah again. Quick. Take a picture!”

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Some of their friends were clearly a little bit wary. I could read it on their faces. Who’s this American, and why am I meeting him? Most, though, were perfectly friendly. They shook my hand, smiled, and said “Welcome.”

For some now-forgotten reason I thought one of the people I was introduced to was Druze, and I was surprised. Only a handful of Druze support Hezbollah. Very nearly all of them are with Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, who heads up the Progressive Socialist Party, and with the pro-Western “March 14” government. So I was happy to meet one of the tiny fraction of Druze who were outside the mainstream.

“You’re Druze?” I said to him.

He shook his head in confusion, clearly because he didn’t understand English.

“Inta Durzi?” I said. Are you Druze?

A look of horror and disgust washed over his face.

“La,” he said. No. “Ana Shia.” I am Shia.

I didn’t mean to insult him, but apparently I had. So much of what passes for politics in Lebanon is really just sectarian animosity, which is the primary reason most Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are against Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a well-armed Shia militia, the only militia of its kind in the country. The Christians don’t have their own army. The Sunni don’t have their army. And the Druze don’t have their own army. Hezbollah’s very existence is against Lebanese law, not to mention international law. Their existence as a foreign-backed army also violates Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing pact which dates back to the founding of the republic.

“Jumblatt is a handicap,” the leader of the kids said.

“Can I take a picture of you guys?” I said.

Most said no. Almost everyone in Lebanon is paranoid about somebody or other. Most Lebanese fear the Syrians. Hezbollah fears the Americans and the Israelis.

Two of them did let me take their picture, however.

Two Hezbollah Supporters.jpg

I said my goodbyes, genuinely thanked them for their time and hospitality, and walked toward the Beirut city center where most of the restaurants and shops can be found.

Every business was closed. The military blockaded every street leading to the center of town with checkpoints and coils of razor wire. Hezbollah and their friends (apparently) couldn’t be trusted not to vandalize the portion of Beirut that had been rebuilt and refurbished by the Hariri clan whom Hezbollah views as their Sunni enemies.

I approached a Lebanese army soldier standing watch.

“Is it okay if I take a picture?” I said.

He put his hand on his heart. “No, please, not today,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “Thank you, though.”

He must have had no idea why I thanked him. The reason I did is because I appreciated that he spoke to me like a normal human being and like a typical Lebanese — friendly, welcoming, and polite. The contrast between average Lebanese (and I’m including Hezbollah’s casual supporters in that group when I say this) and Hezbollah’s official party members and elite is extraordinary. Most of the people of Lebanon are instinctively decent on a personal level no matter their political views or ideology. Hezbollah itself, though, is instinctively menacing and hostile and belligerent. Their ideology is an alien one, imported from the East, from the extremist regime in Tehran. If they ever end up as rulers of Lebanon — and it will surely mean war if they try — Lebanon will no longer be recognizable.

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Hezbollah’s Christian Allies

This is the second installment in a series. You can read Part One here if you missed it.

BEIRUT — While Hezbollah staged a mass protest and sit-in downtown Beirut with the hopes of ousting the elected anti-Syrian “March 14” government, I watched from the patio of a café across the street. Sitting at the next table were two men in orange, one with an orange hat and one with a scarf, which identified them as members of Michel Aoun’s (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement, the only non-Shia political party of any significance in Lebanon that dared form an alliance with Hezbollah.

Aounists at Paul.JPG

The two Aounists smoked cigars and calmly watched the crowd. A man at the next table scowled. Everyone else ate their lunch as though nothing was happening just 30 feet away. The dread of civil war hung over Lebanon like a pall. But if these people weren’t nervous, how could I be? It’s a cliché that fear is contagious. What’s less widely understood is that calm is also contagious. Then again, we were a self-selecting lunch crowd. Thousands of Beirutis were hiding in their homes, hugging their flags, and wishing they lived in a normal country.

I asked the two Aounists if I could join them at their table, if they would be willing to explain to a primarily Western audience why they formed a political alliance with an Islamist militia.

“Of course,” they both warmly said and gestured for me to sit.

“Pull up a seat,” said the man in the hat. “Can I buy you a coffee?”

The man on the left introduced himself as Jack (yes, that’s his real Lebanese name) and said he worked as a pilot for a major airline. The other was named Antonios. He worked as a tour guide in Baalbeck.

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A portrait of Michel Aoun on a street in East Beirut

“So why are you with Aoun and Hezbollah?” I said.

“Aoun is honest and correct,” Antonios said. “Hezbollah in America is seen as terrorists, I know. I understand. But they are a large party in Lebanon and we have to live here with them. So we have to convince them to come back, to put down their arms and join the rest of us. We cannot do it by fighting.”

At least they don’t want to do it by fighting today. Another Aounist I know explained their strategy to me earlier in the year: “We’ll extend our hand and ask them to join us. But we can’t wait forever. If they refuse to disarm we’ll crack the shit out of them.”

“On the other side,” Jack said, “is the Hariri family which has governed since 1990 with and without help from the Syrians. They’re only interested in keeping the Ministry of Finance so they can pay no taxes and steal from us like they do through the cell phone companies.”

Indeed, Lebanon’s cell phone companies are the corporate equivalent of rapists. It costs two dollars a minute to call the United States from Beirut, and it costs 50 cents a minute just to make a local call. This in a country where the average salary is only 800 dollars a month. A member of my hotel’s staff told me a Mexican businessman who stayed with them recently had to pay four dollars a minute to call his wife in Mexico City.

Until the Syrians were chased out by the March 14 Movement, broadband Internet access was banned in Lebanon to prevent people from making free or cheap long distance phone calls using Skype or other Internet services. The ban has since been lifted, but Lebanon’s telecommunications infrastructure is still terribly behind the rest of the world and the region.

“Hariri spent 10 million dollars in the north on his election campaign,” Jack said. “But he stole that money from the government, from us.”

“Seniora should accept this and resign,” Antonios said. “We are voting with Aoun because he is honest and not corrupt. March 14 doesn’t want a man like that in charge of finance.”

I doubt most Aounists are aware of what happened to the left in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Liberals and leftists formed an alliance with the Islamists to overthrow the corrupt and dictatorial Shah Reza Pahlevi. After the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, though, first the leftists were liquidated, and then so too were the liberals. Soon enough only the rightist religious fanatics remained.

“I understand why you don’t want a war with Hezbollah,” I said. “But why does that mean you have to form an alliance with them? Do you really believe Hassan Nasrallah is your friend?”

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Several posters of Aoun are defaced, and placed among them is a portrait of the far more popular (among Christians) Bashir Gemayel, Israel’s Lebanese ally during the civil war.

“No,” Jack said. “He isn’t our friend. But if Hezbollah is truly a part of the government they will give up their arms.”

“Hezbollah no longer uses arms against Lebanese,” Antonios said.

This is almost true, but not quite. I found people in the South whom Hezbollah shot at with machine guns during the July War only a few months ago. But I hadn’t met these people yet at the time, and Jack and Antonios may have had a hard time accepting it even if I had told them about it.

“Hariri accepted Hezbollah’s arms back in 1990,” Jack said, which was of course true.

The situation was different then, though. Southern Lebanon was still under Israeli occupation. Hezbollah’s ideology and tactics may have been distasteful to most of Lebanon’s citizens, but foreign occupation was even more so. Hezbollah was given temporary support by the majority of the people of Lebanon for their struggle against the occupier.

Almost all that support evaporated after Israel withdrew from Lebanese territory. Hezbollah was supposed to disarm. Instead they kept their weapons and warped Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing arrangement — the Shia have their own army while no one else does. This is why Hezbollah is widely detested in Lebanon and why claims that Hezbollah is a popular people’s movement are flatly ridiculous. Hezbollah is a well-armed parochial sectarian movement that is deeply offensive and dangerous in a country where every group is a minority and none are allowed to bully or lord it over the others.

That, of course, is not the only reason Hezbollah frightens most Lebanese. Hezbollah is also, as everyone knows, a proxy militia for Syria and Iran. The Aounists may have legitimate grievances against the “March 14” government, but they’re paying precious little attention to the wider regional picture.

Tony Badran, a Lebanese research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, calls Michel Aoun a “useful idiot.”

“Aoun’s calculations fail to take in some dangerous regional realities. Syria is more than pleased to see Aoun attacking the anti-Syrian government. So is Iran, whose supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently predicted the defeat of U.S. and allied interests in Lebanon. Wittingly or not, Aoun is serving these foreign masters for free.”

Michael Young, opinion page editor at Beirut’s Daily Star, thinks Aoun has doomed himself with his useful idiocy no matter how the crisis resolves in the end.

“The general knows he and his own are the weakest link in the campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Aounists cannot long endure an open-ended sit-in, both because they are not earning salaries to do so and probably because the looming holiday season threatens to melt their momentum. And there is something else: Aoun realizes that as package deals are unwrapped left and right to resolve the ongoing crisis, his chances of seeing the presidency diminish. Indeed, the latest basket of ideas from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa includes a proposal for the March 14 coalition and the opposition to consent to a compromise president. If that process goes through, Aoun will not be the chosen one… can the general then convince Hizbullah and the Syrians that he’s their man? If the Syrians are back in town by then, their preference will be for someone more controllable; and if they are not, this will mean that all sides must accept a compromise candidate. In neither case does Aoun fit the bill.”

The strangest thing about Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah, who is of course allied with Syria, is that Aoun was for years Lebanon’s most militant enemy of Syria as the prime minister and as a general in the army.

“Why is it,” I said to Jack and Antonios, “that Michel Aoun is now pro-Syrian when for years he was the staunchest anti-Syrian leader in Lebanon?”

“Aoun is not pro-Syrian,” Antonios said. “He just wants normal relations with Syria. We can’t fight Syria.”

Sure enough, Lebanon cannot fight Syria. Not militarily, at least, any more than little Kuwait could defend itself against an invasion from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Aoun, you could say, has surrendered to Syrian power, or at least acquiesced to it.

Only the West can or will at least try to keep Syria out of Lebanon.

“What do you two think of US foreign policy here?” I said.

“We love America, but have doubts,” Jack said. “They let Syria come in here in 1991 for help in Iraq.” Jack was referring to former Secretary of State James Baker, who green-lighted Syria’s invasion and overlordship in Lebanon in exchange for “help” during the first Persian Gulf War. How Hafez Assad lent any meaningful assistance in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait has never been clear. Lebanese were sold to the Syrian wolf for a cheap price indeed, and Aoun constantly harps on this point to his followers.

“Now they put their fingers in here,” Jack continued. “They used the Syrian election law.”

The Syrians did write Lebanon’s current election law, and they did it strictly in a way that would benefit them. They gerrymandered the voting districts so that anti-Syrians were marginalized and pro-Syrians strengthened. Jack is annoyed that the US supported quick elections in post-Syrian Lebanon without first pushing for a new electoral law.

“The US will hand us over to the Syrians again for help in Iraq,” Antonios said. “That is what Washington is speaking of doing right now.”

Actually, the Iraq Study Group (headed by none other than James Baker himself) explicitly said Lebanon is off the table, that Assad cannot expect any American support for his little imperialistic adventures. But this detail has been lost in the wash, and I can hardly blame Jack and Antonios for suspecting the worst now that Baker is back.

Aoun Nasrallah and Franjieh.jpg

Michel Aoun’s portrait now appears with those of his former enemies, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and North Lebanon’s token pro-Syrian Maronite Suleiman Franjieh.

This isn’t the first time Michel Aoun made a tactical alliance with people who have little or nothing in common with him politically instead of trying to forge ties with more natural allies.

Aoun became prime minister in 1988, near the end of Lebanon’s civil war. He formed an alliance with Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad’s old Baathist rival, and openly declared war against Syria. The Aounists were the last militant anti-Syrians in the country. Nearly everyone else surrendered to Syrian domination as a way to resolve the intractable 15-year conflict. Aoun couldn’t hold the Syrians off, and he was exiled to France after his surrender.

The US used diplomatic pressure to help get him out of exile last year. But he never forgave the American government for green-lighting his defeat at the end of the war. He still harps on this point today, and so do his partisans, as though Syria would have been unable to rule Lebanon if it weren’t for James Baker — a dubious assumption at best.

Even so, the US does have the bad habit of being fickle with its friends in the Middle East. Many people in the March 14 bloc likewise are worried the US will abandon them to Hezbollah, the Iranians, and the Baath. Anti-American elements in March 14 will tell you that the reason they don’t trust America is not because they hate the US, but because Americans are unreliable allies who care only about themselves and not about Lebanon.

In any case, Aoun’s alliance or détente with Syria, like his alliance with Hezbollah, is mostly just tactical. He wants to be president more than anything else. He’ll do whatever he thinks he must in order to get it, and probably figures that once he’s in office he can do whatever he wants. Unlike the current Assad-appointed Syrian stooge of a president Emile Lahoud, Aoun would be beholden to no one. The man is a loose cannon and always has been.

Foreign policy, though, is not what most motivated Jack and Antonios. They kept steering the conversation back to corruption.

“According to the people ruling Lebanon,” Jack said, “money is the only thing that matters.”

“Nasrallah is honest,” Antonios said. “He takes care of his people. Sure he gets money from Iran, but everyone gets money from outside.”

This is most likely true. Say what you will about Hezbollah, they aren’t known for financial corruption. (UPDATE: Tony Badran deftly dissents in the comments.)

“Does Mr. Bush pay taxes?” Jack asked me.

“Of course,” I said.

“Hariri doesn’t,” he said. “This is justice?”

“No,” I said. “Of course it isn’t justice.”

“Seniora has been in government for 15 years,” Antonios said. “We have no medical scheme, no national education, 55 billion dollars in debt, and no retirement system. Why? 200 dollars a month is the minimum wage. We try to increase it, but they say they have no money. Then they spend 800 million dollars on a new company. This is why we are with Aoun. Our government is not a government. It is like we are ruled by a private corporation for the benefit of the boss.”

I liked these guys, and I sympathized with their positions and complaints. They aren’t terrorists or fascists or anything like it. They’re liberals, basically, although most of the “March 14” bloc parties are relatively liberal in a Middle East way as well. If the Aounists had more decent and respectable allies in their opposition to the government their rallies wouldn’t be considered a “crisis” by anyone in the international community.

Aounist Flag Downtown.jpg

A large orange flag from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement flies over downtown

“Foreigners should stop sending money to Lebanon,” Jack said. “The government will just steal it. They should send someone like you here to watch exactly what happens to that money.”

“Thanks, guys,” I said and laughed. “But accounting isn’t really my specialty.”

The waiter came by the table.

“Do you want another coffee?” Antonios said.

“Get another coffee!” Jack said.

“I’ll have another coffee,” I said to the waiter.

Jack puffed on his cigar.

The opposition isn’t demanding absolute power in Lebanon. They’ll go home if the government gives Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement enough slots in the cabinet that as a bloc they’ll have veto power over government decisions. They want blocking minority status, which just goes to show you how much support in Lebanon Hezbollah actually has. Just giving them one part of a minority faction will sate them for now. If they really were a mass popular movement they would demand a lot more than that.

One reason they want veto power is so they can block the UN tribunal that will indict and punish the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Everyone knows the Syrians did it, and Hezbollah can’t have their patron in Damascus made into a formal pariah by the United Nations.

Why on earth, though, would the Aounists want to block that? The Aounists were a part of the “March 14” movement that ousted the Syrian occupiers from Lebanon after Hariri was killed.

“So, what about the tribunal?” I said to Jack and Antonios. “Do you really want to block the investigation?”

“We are worried,” Antonios said, “that [Saad] Hariri wants to use the tribunal to go after people whose faces in Lebanon he doesn’t like.”

I think I must have audibly sighed when I heard that. But these guys live in a part of the world where politics has always been a ruthless and murderous business. Political enemies really do disappear into dungeons. Voicing the “wrong” opinion in a newspaper column can get you car-bombed on the way to work in the morning. Foreign powers really do manipulate local governments for their own craven gain. Paranoia naturally thrives in environments like Lebanon’s, and I’m honestly surprised it isn’t an even bigger problem than it already is.

“We are not against anybody,” Antonios earnestly said. “We just support our country. We are normal people and we work every day.”

“Do you think there will be more war in Lebanon?” I said.

“No!” Jack said. “Not with ourselves, and not with Israel. I think there is a deal under the table between the Israelis and Hezbollah. Both sides lost and don’t want to do it again. The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case.”

I hope Jack is right, but I fear he is not. Hezbollah has restocked its arsenal. Hezbollah has made no formal announcement that its war with Israelis is finished. If Hezbollah wants peace or at least an armistice, they are keeping their intentions very much to themselves.

If Hezbollah increases its share of government power, more war with Israel is only that much more likely. And the more official state power that Hezbollah is able to garner, the more incentive the Israelis will have to attack all of Lebanon next time there’s war.

Jack and Antonios are in a terrible spot. At some point Hezbollah needs to be mainstreamed. But if they’re mainstreamed prematurely, Lebanon as a whole will be moved into Israel’s kill zone.

The alternative, though, is also quite grim.

“If Israel can’t deal with Hezbollah, how can Seniora and Jumblatt?” Antonios said. “We have to negotiate with them. If we don’t then we will divide on sectarian lines and we will no longer have a country. Look at that mosque next to the church.”

church and mosque beirut 2005.jpg

“We need this,” he said. “Christians need Muslims. And Muslims need Christians. That is what Lebanon is.”

Post-script: Please donate and help support independent journalism. I am not independently wealthy, and I have to pay all travel expenses out of my own pocket to bring you these dispatches. Your donation helps defray the costs of my trip to Beirut and South Lebanon, and may also go toward covering my next trip abroad — which is coming up soon in six weeks.

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Meanwhile…

It’s the holidays, and blogging is slow. I have a longish piece coming up about Michel Aoun and Hezbollah’s Christian allies, but it isn’t quite ready yet.

In the meantime, don’t take the comments section too seriously. I have a bit of a troll infestation, a gift from the self-described Angry Arab who attacks me in part because of my race. A link from his site is a comments section destroyer.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. The axe-grinding reactionaries in the comments do not even remotely represent the people of Lebanon. They represent the readers of Angry Arab. (The name says it all.)

I don’t think the professor (yes, he’s a professor) realizes what a spectacularly bad job he’s doing of public relations for his country. I should not have to clean up his mess on behalf of his countrymen, but here I am doing it. You will really have to excuse his fans. Please. Lebanon is far kinder, more tolerant, and more intelligent than they are. I am sorry for having to say this.

I rather doubt that when I post interviews with Lebanese who were used as human shields in July, and with an Iranian-educated Shia cleric from the dahiyeh who staunchly opposes Hezbollah that he’ll feel like linking me anymore.

Hezbollah’s Putsch – Day One

Church and Mosque Beirut.jpg

BEIRUT — I returned to Beirut after eight months and a hot summer war and found that the city had little changed, at least on the surface. My old neighborhood in West Beirut was intact. Civil war reconstruction continued downtown. More restaurants and pubs had opened close-in on the east side of the city. Solidere sported a brand-new Starbucks. Beirut did not appear to be reeling from war. Post-Syrian gentrification had proceeded as scheduled.

On second glance, though, all was not well. I was the only guest in my eight-story hotel, and I genuinely shocked the staff when I stepped into the lobby first thing in the morning. “Why are you still here?” one bartender asked me. Almost all my friends and even acquaintances left the country during the July War and hadn’t returned. Milk was still hard to come by in grocery stores and even some restaurants because the Israeli Air Force destroyed Lebanon’s milk factory. Party and sectarian flags were flown on the streets in abundance, a tell-tale sign that the post-Syrian patriotism and unity were coming apart.

All that and, you know, the private army of an enemy state was threatening to topple the government.

I had barely arrived and recovered from jet lag before Hezbollah took over the streets. I asked Carine, one of my few remaining friends, if she wanted to join me downtown for the festivities, but she refused to be seen anywhere near the made-for-TV event. She didn’t want to artificially inflate Hezbollah’s head-count by one. So I went down there alone with my camera and notepad.

Protesters Near Mosque.JPG

Aside from Hezbollah, the Baath Party, and a few irrelevant crackpots on the radical left, no one in the world thinks of liberal-democratic protests and sit-ins in Lebanon as a “crisis.” But nearly everyone — including the Arab League and every Arab government in the world except for Syria’s — recognizes, for one set of reasons or another, that it’s a problem when a guerilla and terrorist army loyal to another state tries to topple an elected government.

I try my best to be accurate. But these reports are not “objective.” My writing is personal and unapologetically biased. If you want bloodless and neutral coverage of the ongoing crisis in Lebanon, find a writer or reporter who doesn’t care about Lebanon, who can shrug at its problems, who only cares about the place because it’s a “story,” who can yawn and sleep soundly while it convulses and explodes. There are plenty around. The rest of us will take sides.

*

I ate breakfast at Paul, a little French bistro across the street from a Lebanese army checkpoint that marked the beginning of Hezbollah’s freshly occupied territory downtown. The café was a bit quieter than usual, but if you had just parachuted into Lebanon, hadn’t picked up a newspaper, stayed inside the little bubble the bistro provided, and refrained from discussing the impending crisis, you would have no idea a political storm was scheduled and coming.

Couple at Paul.jpg

Many Beirutis in the Sunni and Christian neighborhoods (which is to say, most of Beirut) feared political and sectarian violence in the streets. I didn’t so much, at least not at that time. The Lebanese army had deployed in full force. The city looked like a besieged war-time capital braced for an invasion.

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Lebanese Army Soldier Hezbollah Rally.jpg

Lebanese Soldiers Hezbollah Rally.JPG

Hezbollah also dispatched their “discipline” men to prevent and break up fights. It was oddly comforting, but nevertheless so, that Hezbollah’s pragmatic higher-ups would be protecting me and everyone else from their fans. Many people worried about civil war, but no one seemed to want it. So there was no war.

Hezbollah wasn’t the big threat in any case. Hezbollah is Lebanese. Hezbollah has to live there with Christians and Sunnis and Druze. More worrisome were what one former Aounist I know calls “the flies on their backs” — the Syrian intelligence agents who have every incentive to foment chaos and violence.

The rally was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. I went downtown at 1:00.

Protesters on Empty Street.JPG

Die hard supporters of Hezbollah set out early into the empty streets of Beirut

Hezbollah asked (ordered?) its members and followers to fly only Lebanese flags at the rally downtown. A swarming mass of menacing green and yellow “resistance” flags wouldn’t look good in front of the cameras.

Hezbollah Flag.JPG

So Hezbollah waved the benign and patriotic cedar tree flag instead.

Hezbollah Protesters Arrive Downtown.JPG

Some Hezbollah supporters didn’t get the memo or chose to ignore it.

Hezbollah Hats.JPG

But the “resistance” logo for the most part wasn’t in evidence.

Most Lebanese Christians, Sunnis, and Druze never visit Hezbollah’s strongholds. “Why the hell would I want to go there?” a friend once asked me. “For some sight-seeing?”

I go to Hezbollah, though, and I did it again a few times on this trip. After having done so within days of the rally, the sheer cynicism of flying the Lebanese flag in front of the cameras is painfully obvious.

Lebanese flags are ubiquitous in the Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions of Lebanon. Lebanon is perhaps the most be-flagged country I’ve ever seen. But Lebanese flags scarcely exist in the areas under control by Hezbollah. (They have a state-within-a-state, after all, with parallel institutions, schools, military, police, and foreign policy. Why not flags, too?) The cedar tree flags downtown are mere props in a media battle. Hezbollah wants to look mainstream and patriotic. A road trip to the south shows this is a lie. (I’ll document my trip south in future articles.)

Michel Aoun’s (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement did fly its orange flags downtown, though.

Aounist Protesters.jpg

The Aounists are Hezbollah’s Christian fig leaf, the only non-Shia party of any significance that dared form an alliance with a party so implacably hostile to the Lebanese project. What good would a fig leaf be if it were invisible? So the Aounists burnished their orange. The Aounists had to be seen.

I felt better with the Aounists around. The Hezbollah demonstrators who came downtown two hours early were the true believers, the ones who would have come down even if Hezbollah had not paid them to do so. (Each person was paid 30 dollars to attend the rally, and everyone who stayed downtown in the camps was paid another 30 dollars for each day they stayed.) Hardly any women were down there at 1:00, and many of the men who were there were pumped full of macho swagger like coked-up frat boys looking for fights.

The Christian Aounists in orange may be fools for forming an alliance with a bullying Islamist army. But they are civilized people who have no interest in war or jihad. I knew that if anyone in the crowd were to give me any trouble the nearest group of Aounists could provide a friendly refuge. I do not agree with their politics, but I instinctively like and trust them as people. (You would, too, if you knew them as I do.)

A handful of other micro-parties showed up — Marada, the Communists, and a few that were so insignificant I did not know they existed until I ran into them. Most damning was the presence of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

The SSNP, founded by Antun Saada in 1932 and modeled after the Nazi and Fascist parties of Germany and Italy, is the most vicious and sinister of all Lebanon’s parties, more so even than Hezbollah. Last week seven members were arrested by Lebanese police and several truckloads of weapons and explosives were captured. Ali Qanso, the party leader, defensively said “we are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.” If the Syrians use Lebanese proxies to carry out bombings and assassinations, the SSNP are most likely the culprits.

(Johns Hopkins Professor Fouad Ajami, who grew up as a Shia in South Lebanon, wrote about Saada and the SSNP at length in his masterful Dream Palace of the Arabs.)

SSNP Protester.jpg

Their flag is a spinning swastika. Naturally they are aligned with Hezbollah and belong to the so-called “March 8” opposition coalition.

Hezbollah blasted ear-splitting military music through gigantic speaker towers. Some of it was cheesy and sounded more or less like the same patriotic pop I heard at March 14 rallies last year. Some of it, though, sounded exactly like the soundtrack to a fascist putsch or revolution.

Squads of rowdy militant teenagers shouted “Nasrallah! Nasrallah! Nasrallah!” and violently pumped fists in the air.

A loutish gang of young Shia men walked along the line of separation between the downtown rally and middle class Christian East Beirut. They loudly booed and jeered as they looked east, all but daring the residents to come out and “get some.” Echoes of Northern Ireland.

A twelve year old kid with a Hezbollah flag saw me and sneered.

Hezbollah’s own security goons with their walkie talkies and ear pieces stared at me and closely watched every single move I made.

A small angry-looking child dressed in military fatigues wandered around loose on his own.

Soldier Boy Protester.jpg

It was a slightly creepy environment, but for the most part uneventful. Nobody got in my face (yet). So I went back to Gemmayze in East Beirut and had a beer while waiting for more people to show up.

Gemmayze begins only one block from downtown where the rally was held, but its quieter civilized streets felt like another country.

Tueni in Gemmayze.jpg

Hallowed Be Thy Name.jpg

I snapped a quick photo of a “No War” sticker on the door to a French bar called Godot.

No War Godot.JPG

“That’s from July,” the bartender said as he stepped out to talk to me. “It is not from this war.”

“You think this is a war?” I said.

“It is shit,” he said. “It’s bad for everybody, for the government and the opposition.”

“You’re independent then,” I said.

“I have no side,” he said. “I’m proud to be Lebanese, but I have no side.”

His name was Chibli and he told me Godot was open throughout the July War. His little bar became something of a haven for visiting foreign correspondents. I didn’t see any visiting foreign correspondents in Godot on that day, nor anywhere else on any other day either.

Godot was closed, though, until 4:00. So I went to Torino, the only place open in a neighborhood where support for Aounists was slim and support for Hezbollah has always been zero.

Inside Torino.JPG

Such a surreal place, Beirut. Inside the bar was a world of hipsters, booze, good conversation, Italian-style espresso, flirting, and Depeche Mode on the stereo. Outside was Hezbollah, guns, tanks, and the army.

A car roared past bristling with Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Marada flags. Marada is a tiny party in North Lebanon headed by Suleiman Franjieh — who lost his parliament seat in the last election — that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Syrian Baath Party. Seeing Aounists and Marada in the same car was truly bizarre. During most of Syria’s post-war occupation of Lebanon the Aounists were at times the only people in the country who bravely demonstrated in public against the regime. They were beaten, arrested, and sometimes tortured for their acts of defiance. Aoun’s newfound alliance with the old enemy enrages most of the Christian community. The FPM is less popular than ever as a result.

Tension within the Christian community is higher now than it has been since the end of the war 15 years ago. But the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance lowers the tension between Christians and Shia. Since the odds of inter-Christian fighting are vanishingly close to zero and the odd of Christian-Shia fighting are slightly higher, the Aounists may have a point when they say their alliance with Nasrallah is a buffer against civil war. Nevertheless, the alliance is ugly to see.

I went back downtown at 2:45. The crowd was burgeoning now, and genuinely enormous.

Large Hezbollah Crowd.JPG

Martyr’s Square, though, and the gigantic empty spaces around it, were blocked off by razor wire and the army.

Razor Wire Martyrs Square.JPG

Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is buried across the street from Martyr’s Square, and his grave had to be protected from tens of thousands of angry Shia who might desecrate it if a mob mentality were to develop. So when you see photos of large masses of Hezbollah protesters, keep in mind that the anti-Syrian rally on March 14 of last year filled the same space you see above in addition to filling the much larger Martyr’s Square area to the east of downtown.

Razor Wire Martyrs Square 2.jpg

Hezbollah likes to claim their rally was larger. But it is not physically possible for it to have been larger. They filled the space allotted to them, but they had much less space to fill.

Razor Wire Martyrs Square 3.JPG

The Aounists have the dubious distinction of having been present at both rallies. I doubt they understand how these photographs are interpreted abroad, and how crazy it must look that a supposedly liberal Christian political party is aligned with an Islamist terror militia. Don’t they understand that this makes Lebanon look like a nation of terrorists and terror supporters to people outside the country? Lebanon’s politics are strange and misleading enough to people who understand how the internal jockeying and consensus system works.

So when I found two Aounists in orange sitting at an outdoor table at the French café next to downtown I asked if I could join them and if they would be willing to explain themselves to a primarily American audience.

Aounists at Paul.JPG

“Of course,” they both warmly said and gestured for me to sit.

“Pull up a seat,” said the man on the left. “Can I buy you a coffee?”

Click here to read the next installment.

Post-script: Please donate and help support independent journalism. I am not independently wealthy, and I have to pay all travel expenses out of my own pocket to bring you these dispatches. Your donation helps defray the costs of my trip to Beirut and South Lebanon, and may also go toward covering my next trip abroad — which is coming up soon in six weeks.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas/Hannukah/Eid al-Adha/Festivus/Holidays. Hope that takes care of everybody.

I have returned to the world of the vertical and the living. But I shall not blog on Christmas or Christmas Eve. What are you doing on the Internet today anyway?

I’ll be back the day after with lots of material.

Please Be Patient

I picked up a nasty virus on the plane home from the Middle East and have hardly been able to move for two days. Blogging will resume when my fever breaks.

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