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Lebanon Vol. 2

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(02-13) 04:00 PST Ain el-Roummani, Lebanon -- Just a few yards from a statue of the Virgin, marking the spot where the Lebanese civil war started back in 1975, Elie Harfouch sized up visitors to this Christian neighborhood.

After deciding the strangers weren't a threat, he warned that tensions in Lebanon were as high as they'd ever been and that Wednesday's second anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could be a bloody one.

"The young people are boiling," said Harfouch, 50. "You can't hold them back."

It's not just the young people. According to diplomatic sources, intelligence analysts and interviews in various neighborhoods, Sunnis, Shiites and Christians in Beirut have begun stockpiling weapons and posting sentries to defend against what they say are possible assaults by rival factions.

Harfouch, a former fighter for the Lebanese Forces, one of the numerous militias that tore Lebanon apart in a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, said residents of Ain el-Roummani are "absolutely" preparing. Guards are posted in strategic buildings to watch for incoming Shiite mobs, he said, and most people are buying weapons.

"A rifle used to cost $200. Now it costs $1,000," Harfouch said, and shrugged. "You have to defend yourself."

The event that has neighborhoods turning into bunkers is the planned rally on Wednesday by the pro-government coalition known as March 14, named for the date of a huge pro-Hariri, anti-Syrian protest, one month after the slaying of the popular prime minister in 2005.

Wednesday's rally is planned for a city square where the body of Hariri lies, not far from the 2-month-old sprawling tent city and sit-in that the militant Islamic Shiite group Hezbollah and its supporters -- the March 8 coalition, named for a pro-Syrian street rally in 2005 -- have erected in downtown Beirut in a bid to force the U.S.-supported government of Fuad Saniora from power.

The current crisis erupted in November, three months after the devastating Hezbollah-Israel war, when six pro-Syrian ministers resigned from Saniora's Cabinet. That was followed by strikes and the continuing sit-in downtown organized by Hezbollah.

Two days of street battles at the end of January in Beirut and elsewhere between pro- and anti-government forces resulted in the death of nine people and the wounding of at least 300. The violence also took on a sectarian tone as Sunnis, who mainly support the government headed by one of their own, fought the Syrian-backed Shiite protesters.

January's clashes between gangs of young men was fought mainly with sticks and stones. But as the rise in prices for weapons suggests, neighborhoods seem to be preparing for more deadly clashes.

In the Tariq el-Jadedih district of Beirut, a major base of support for the government and the Hariri clan that saw the worst of the violence in January, young men warned that they would not stand by if Hezbollah and its allies came to their neighborhood.

"We have our own weapons," said one. "We have to defend ourselves. They come in here and smash our cars. What's next? Coming into our homes?"

Meanwhile, in the Shiite suburbs in south Beirut, posters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah adorn most storefronts, and pictures of men who died fighting the Israelis on and off over the past 26 years are placed in honored spots.

And there is little doubt that Hezbollah is by far the best armed and equipped of all the Lebanese factions. However, according to intelligence analysts, major groups comprising the March 14 coalition -- mostly the Lebanese Forces, the Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party and the Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri, son of the slain ex-prime minister -- are busy procuring weapons and training as a precaution against any outbreak in violence.

The Sunnis "really see a need to arm themselves now," said Reva Bhalla, director of geopolitical analysis for Stratfor, a Texas-based security consulting company. "Everyone just wants to be prepared."

Bhalla said she has received reports that Hariri is buying weapons from Saudi Arabia and Jordan -- mostly automatic rifles, heavy machine guns, ammunition and mortars -- and storing them in West Beirut, a primarily Sunni part of the city.

A high-level member of Hezbollah, who demanded anonymity, said young people in the Sunni neighborhoods are being organized and trained by older men who fought in the Lebanese civil war for the al-Murabitun, then the largest Sunni militia.

Hezbollah also charges that Wissam al-Hassan, Rafik Hariri's former chief of security and now the head of the intelligence division within the Interior Ministry's Internal Security Forces, is distributing gun licenses to Sunni men, allowing them to buy weapons easily from local gun shops.

Al-Hassan was unavailable for comment. But an Interior Ministry source denied the accusation.

"They attack us, they attack the internal security forces," he said. "This is political."

Bhalla said Hezbollah is also readying itself. She said hundreds of Hezbollah fighters from the group's strongholds outside Beirut have moved into the tent city downtown. Sniper teams from Hezbollah, Amal and the allied Syrian Social Nationalist Party have also scouted buildings surrounding downtown to prevent any members of the March 14 movement from provoking them into violence, she said.

On Thursday, the Lebanese army intercepted a truck filled with rockets and small arms in a neighborhood about a five-minute drive from downtown. Hezbollah said the weapons were destined for its fighters in the south and demanded their return under an agreement the Lebanese government made with Hezbollah to support the "right of the resistance" against Israel.

Defense Minister Elias Murr refused, saying the weapons would be turned over to the Lebanese army.

Back in Ain el-Roummani, Harfouch scoffed at the notion that Hezbollah's weapons shipment was for use against Israel.

"What does the resistance need with light arms?" he asked sarcastically. "They're for internal fighting. There isn't anyone who isn't arming themselves."









tomorrow is go time i guess.

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