Hezbollah's big challenge
BEIRUT - "You are in heaven and those who killed you will go to hell," reads a poster in a middle-class, predominantly Sunni neighborhood in north Beirut.
Those depicted in heaven include Saddam Hussein, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri (killed in a car bombing in 2005), and Sheik Ahmed Yassin (the Hamas leader assassinated by the Israelis in 2004). There's not much to unite Saddam, Arafat, Hariri and Yassin - who all "went to heaven" by different methods - except they were Sunni.
Compare this to posters all over bombed-out south Beirut depicting smiling Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
That's one way to see a Sunni-Shi'ite divide played out in a single Middle Eastern capital. Another way is to confront the configuration of the city itself.
Flush with Saudi Arabian funds, Hariri, a billionaire Sunni, set out to rebuild Beirut from the ashes of the Lebanese civil war.
Western Christians - and Saudi Wahhabis - may be impressed with the malls and the smart cafes. But the Shi'ite masses from south Beirut - or south Lebanon for that matter - won't be seen sipping a cappuccino at the al-Maarad, facing the excavated ruins of the Roman cardus maximus (city center); they won't be shopping for Prada in Ras Beirut; they won't even be allowed at the door of the US$300-a-night hotel Albergo in Achrafiye; and the kids won't be able to afford $10 drinks at the Strange Fruit nightclub.
The game of what many call Hariri Inc was to rebuild the former "Paris of the East" from top - downtown - down during the 1990s, and then the rest of Lebanon would also join the party. It didn't happen. Shi'ites not only didn't profit from it, they were bombed by Israel last summer, after downtown Beirut had become a de facto Saudi playground.
But then, last December, a mass Lebanese opposition campaign, direct-democracy-style, was unleashed, led by Hezbollah. Downtown is now relatively empty - occupied by people drinking tea and playing backgammon in tents for days, even weeks, in a round-the-clock anti-government sit-in to the sound of macho martial rhythms.
Lebanon may be losing as much as $70 million a day as the impasse continues. Wealthy Saudi and Emirates tycoons are laying off people in droves. The affluent, non-Shi'ite, party-going crowd moved back to the coffee shops in old Hamra Street. But downtown is not dead - at least not yet, if one counts as sustainable development projects like La Residence, a $140 million, Ivana Trump-designed luxury apartment tower, still selling at a brisk pace.
Lebanon as a model
The easiest way to avoid trouble in Lebanon is to behave like a Shi'ite in the south, like a Sunni in Jiyyih and like a Christian in Beirut. Anyone strictly secular may run the risk of talking to the deaf. Unlike Syria, sectarianism rules. It sounds like Iraq in more ways than one - a non-viable state.
Crackpots abound - like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who qualifies Nasrallah as a Syrian agent, Assad as a "serial killer" and Hezbollah as puppets of Tehran. Or Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who proposed chartering flights full of Lebanese politicians to Saudi Arabia so they can be all swayed (by checkbook?) by King Abdullah. As'ad AbuKhalil, host of the Angry Arab website, always stresses that the Lebanese civil war never ended. What outsiders don't know is the current sectarian wave was unleashed by Hariri Inc and their wealthy Saudi associates.
But the buck doesn't stop with them. Because there will always be the Washington-House of Saud axis.
Saudi Arabia's powerful Prince Bandar, former ambassador to Washington, also known as Bandar Bush - who harbors desires of becoming the next Saudi king - is basically pro-US and anti-Syria, thus fiercely anti-Hezbollah. Bandar has been instrumental in convincing other members of the "axis of fear" apart from Saudi Arabia - Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and the Emirates - that the US must attack Iran sooner rather than later.
It's an open secret in Beirut - and across the Middle East - that the US is financing the Fouad Siniora government with Bandar money, not to mention the almost $9 billion which "mysteriously" disappeared from Iraq. A US-pushed January conference in Paris came up with pledges of no less than $8 billion to Lebanon, including more than $1 billion from the House of Saud. Rafik Hariri himself was always very close to the House of Saud, and Prince Bandar in particular.
A United Nations investigation revealed no direct evidence of Syrian implication in Hariri's assassination. Officials in Damascus are more than happy to remind anyone that Hariri was also very close to former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset, former Iraqi interim prime minister and "Butcher of Fallujah", Iyad Allawi, Not to mention that he was the facilitator of a $20 billion arms deal between the Russians and the House of Saud. As for the pitiful Siniora, he could not even place a call to President George W Bush last summer to stop Israel from bombing his own country to the Stone Age.
Lebanon is a mere pawn in this Big Brother (US-Bandar Bush) game. No wonder Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's number two, has been roundly denouncing Washington for pulling no punches in preventing any agreement between the Siniora government and the opposition. Qassem says the US "wants to tie Lebanon into negotiations that benefit Israel and their plan for a New Middle East".
Qassem also stresses that the US is waging a "covert war" against Hezbollah. Hezbollah is just reading the news here: before Christmas 2006, and after long discussions with Bandar Bush, Bush signed a "non-lethal presidential finding", officially deniable, giving the green light to the CIA to take on Hezbollah - under the guise of providing financial and logistical support to the Siniora government. Although the finding was top secret, the news leaked.
This configures the US, plus the "axis of fear", plus Israel all united to, in White House/Pentagon newspeak, "stop Iranian hegemony in the Middle East". It's hard not to agree with Iran's ambassador to Damascus, Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, when he says that the US is using the old British imperial tactic of divide and rule, sowing discord among Sunnis and Shi'ites to try to isolate Iran.
Give a hand to al-Qaeda
The US game in Lebanon is hardcore. It involves $60 million support for a Hezbollah witchhunt operated by the Internal Security Force at the Interior Ministry; and generous, active support to al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni jihadis. Once again the Bush administration is merrily playing al-Qaeda's game. Blowback will be inevitable.
Just as Iraq is in Syria, Iraq has also come to Lebanon. Hundreds of new jihadis plucked from among the more than 400,000 Palestinians who live in refugee camps in Lebanon - like Fatah al-Islam, originally from the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, or Asbat al-Ansar, from the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp - crossed to Iraq and acquired battlefield experience fighting the US occupation. At least some of them are back, as well as a smattering of Salafi-jihadis from northern Lebanon who settled back in Tripoli. There's also al-Qaeda fi Bilad as-Sham ("al-Qaeda in the lands of the Levant"), which sprung up when Syrian forces left Lebanon in 2005.
These are among the new US "friends" in Lebanon. Not surprisingly, billionaire Saad Hariri, Rafik's son - who looks like a cross between a sleazy car salesman and a cheap hoodlum and happens to double as Sunni majority leader of the Lebanese Parliament - has already bailed out and obtained amnesty for a smattering of Salafi-jihadis from Dinniyeh trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Nasrallah - who night after night is never allowed to sleep in the same place - is the number one target not only of these Salafi-jihadis but also of Jordanian intelligence, faithful to "axis of fear" stalwart and staunch US ally King Abdullah. On an Arab street level, Nasrallah remains the undisputed top politician all over the Middle East, be it among Sunnis or Shi'ites: in Damascus his posters are found even in Christian and Armenian businesses.
A landmark January interview by Nasrallah to the satellite channel al-Manar remains essential in outlining Hezbollah's take on the Lebanese game. Lebanon is viewed as part of the US-concocted "New Middle East"; its destiny is intimately related to occupied Palestine and Iraq, as much as the US fomenting sectarianism in Lebanon is also intimately related to the US fomenting a civil war in Iraq.
The White House has of course accused Hezbollah - with no proof - of supporting Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army (Nasrallah has repeatedly said Hezbollah supports the Iraqi resistance "in all its dimensions"). It's true that Muqtada supported Hezbollah when Israel attacked Lebanon last summer. In Kufa and Beirut it is also widely recognized that Muqtada respects Nasrallah as a towering, extremely popular, nationalist leader - and has tried to model the Mehdi Army, to some extent, on Hezbollah.
Yes, there are indeed Muqtada-meets-Nasrallah posters - and these will be collectors' items in CIA boot camps. But although they both may lead nationalist resistance movements - thus inevitably incurring America's wrath - there are fundamental differences. Hezbollah is a solid block, the Mehdi Army has splintered into at least three factions. Hezbollah is not sectarian, unlike at least two of the Mehdi Army's factions still engaged in attacks against Sunni civilians.
Nasrallah is very much aware of divide and rule. In his January interview, he defined the New Middle East as "a collection of statelets that are divided along religious, sectarian and racial lines, from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Iran to Turkey to Afghanistan to Pakistan; all the way to Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the rest of the Gulf States, reaching North Africa. A founding pillar of the 'New Middle East' is continuous conflict between these statelets."
Already in January, Nasrallah was puzzled by "some politicians in Lebanon who are intimately tied to the US, and who are known to coordinate closely with the Americans, these politicians are agitating Sunnis against Shi'ites under the pretext that Shi'ites are American collaborators. This is a bizarre, surreal contradiction." Bizarre is indeed the middle name of the Bush administration's game - as it pits its Sunni clients against Shi'ites in Lebanon while pitting its own Shi'ite collaborators against "other" Shi'ites and assorted Sunnis in Iraq. But Nasrallah may not be puzzled at all that the Bush administration had to reach for al-Qaeda to take on Hezbollah.
It all boils down to the same game: smashing any true nationalist resistance movement, whatever it takes, to the benefit of easily pliable client regimes. Thus the Nuri al-Maliki client regime in Iraq killing Sunnis (and, as much as possible, also Sadrists); the Abbas client regime in Palestine against Hamas; the Siniora client regime in Lebanon attacking Hezbollah. In appropriate newspeak the surge for a region-wide Sunni-Shi'ite war is then labeled as "support for democracy" and spun on pliant corporate media. The repressive, retrograde House of Saud couldn't be a better partner in this "peace process" - as it sees nationalists such as Nasrallah, Muqtada and Hamas leader Khalid Meshal as the plague.
No more wars
Hezbollah officials in Beirut told Asia Times Online that the party is very much aware that Bush, Bandar Bush and Israel are working to unleash fitna - doubt, anger, the implosion of Islam. They say the US wants a partition not only of Iraq, but also of Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah is doing all it can to prevent a regional Sunni-Shi'ite war - which would start by a partition of Iraq.
This is exactly what we hear from Iraqi refugees in Damascus: the US wants Sunnis and Shi'ites to kill each other instead of US occupation soldiers. And this is also what Syrian intelligence hears from these same Iraqi refugees, whether they come from Baghdad, Hilla and Najaf or from Fallujah and Ramadi.
Hezbollah does not want another civil war in Lebanon. And Hezbollah also does not want another war with Israel. But just in case, the party is preparing non-stop for another possible Israeli attack, which "could happen before the end of 2008".
Meanwhile, no one knows what will happen in downtown Beirut. Hezbollah swears the sit-in will continue. Hezbollah and other groups in the opposition want veto power over the US-backed Siniora cabinet. Christian Maronites and Sunnis may scream, but the majority of Lebanon's population agree.
Hezbollah sees the cabinet as a US puppet. The Siniora government and Hariri Inc say Hezbollah is a puppet from Syria and Iran. Dialogue seems virtually impossible. Breaking the deadlock may have to wait until November, when President Emile Lahoud finishes his term. It's been widely rumored in Beirut that Lahoud may appoint a new government. Surrealist Lebanon would then have two competing cabinets. No wonder Lebanon is suffering a massive brain drain.
And then there's the non-stop US pressure for the UN Security Council to set up an international tribunal to examine the killing of Hariri. Hezbollah is not against a tribunal - but against a tribunal manipulated by the US as a political weapon.
Hezbollah has a sound proposal for breaking the Lebanese deadlock now: new elections or a referendum. The US's clients keep saying no. Nasrallah will have to wait. He may already be the most clever - and popular - statesman in the Middle East. But the true test of his caliber will not be to offer tangible proof that Hezbollah is not a puppet of Syria and Iran; it will be to offset the specter of a regional, US-encouraged, Sunni-Shi'ite war.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007). He may be reached at email@example.com.