By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT, June 22 (Reuters) - The Lebanese army has declared victory over Fatah al-Islam militants in a Palestinian refugee camp, but that alone will not wipe out al Qaeda-inspired jihadis who are exploiting Lebanon's security gaps and sectarian splits.
Fatah al-Islam has Lebanese as well as Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis among its few hundred fighters, some of whom have seen combat against U.S. forces in Iraq, security sources say.
"It's not just a product from abroad, whether the hypothesis is Iraq or Syria or al Qaeda," said International Crisis Group analyst Patrick Haenni. "It is also rooted in Lebanon."
Sunni militants have operated in Lebanon and beyond. One of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked plane attackers in the United States was Lebanese. Four Lebanese men are on trial in Beirut for trying to blow up trains in Germany, where a fifth suspect was indicted this week. Lebanese authorities say they have foiled several other alleged al Qaeda plots.
Fatah al-Islam die-hards contested every inch of the army's 33-day advance on their strongholds in the battered Nahr al-Bared camp near the northern Sunni city of Tripoli.
Lebanese troops fought just as doggedly after militants overran army posts on May 20 and, security sources say, killed 17 soldiers in cold blood, beheading at least two of them.
That was a grim echo of a confrontation with Sunni Islamist gunmen who beheaded four army soldiers, all Christians, in the hills of Dinniyeh east of Tripoli in early January 2000. Syrian forces then in Lebanon helped snuff out the revolt.
The Nahr al-Bared battle was Lebanon's bloodiest internal conflict since the 1975-1990 civil war. At least 172 people -- 76 soldiers, 60 militants and 36 non-combatants -- were killed.
GIVING ISLAMISTS A BAD NAME
"It's hard to understand why Fatah al-Islam acted this way when their behaviour in daily life showed Islamic commitment," Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a Sunni scholar, told Reuters in Sidon.
Hammoud helped defuse tension at the Palestinian camp of Ain al-Hilweh near the southern city this month after an armed clash between the army and Jund al-Sham, a small group with links to Fatah al-Islam, raised fears the conflict might spread.
Other jihadis, including Usbat al-Ansar, a group accused of killing four judges in Sidon in 1999, joined Palestinian Fatah fighters in a makeshift security force to restore calm.
"Our problem is with the whole world, not just the Lebanese army," proclaimed Abu Omar, 37, a bearded Jund al-Sham militant with a pistol in his belt and bulging muscles.
Abu Omar, strutting in a squalid street just metres from a joint security force checkpoint, was speaking before he was wounded last week in an accident with explosives in a tyre workshop. The blast killed two other Jund al-Sham members.
Under a 1969 Arab agreement, Lebanese forces are barred from Palestinian camps, making them a haven for outlaws.
Much remains murky about Fatah al-Islam, which split from the pro-Syrian Fatah Intifada Palestinian group in November and declared jihad against Jews and "Zionist crusaders of the West".
The Western-backed government says it is a Syrian proxy in a game to destabilise Lebanon and restore Syrian influence there.
Damascus, which has complained that al Qaeda activity has surged in Lebanon since its troops left after the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, denies the charge.
Syria's allies in Lebanon, including the Shi'ite Hezbollah group, accuse the Sunni-dominated ruling coalition led by Hariri's son Saad of funding and even arming jihadi groups like Fatah al-Islam to counter Hezbollah's military might.
The conflicting versions reflect how Lebanese politics are once again muddied and polarised by wider power struggles, such as that pitting Israel, the United States and its Arab allies against Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas group.
Lebanon's political paralysis and sectarian alignments have fuelled a climate in which jihadi clusters can thrive and find recruits in Palestinian camps or the back streets of Tripoli.
Haenni contrasted Tripoli's traditional purist Islamists, some of whose leaders have been softened by wealth and co-opted by mainstream Sunni politicians, with a harsher jihadi trend.
"The jihadi experience in Lebanon seems deeply linked with a kind of uprooted militancy," he said, referring to al Qaeda-type networks operating across borders in a globalised struggle.
After Hezbollah's war with Israel last year, al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged Muslims to rush to south Lebanon and "set up a jihad base on the borders of Palestine".
Hammoud said al Qaeda groups did not speak with one voice and it was impossible to tell if Osama bin Laden's organisation was really trying to turn Lebanon into a frontline for jihad.
"If so, they are doing it secretly. I can't say I'm comfortable about it, but I'm not too afraid," he said.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah is unlikely to make space on its southern turf for Qaeda militants, many of whom hate Shi'ites.
But a U.N. peacekeeping force there, whose former commander said Sunni militants were his biggest security worry, has gone on higher alert since the Nahr al-Bared fighting erupted.
New blast walls protect U.N. offices in Beirut -- bombings in and around the capital have killed 11 people, including a pro-Hariri Sunni legislator, in the last five weeks, although it is not clear if they were related to the battle in the north.
"I'm sure these jihadi groups will rise. They may not act now, but they are going to be there," Haenni said. "They are neither a small bunch of radicals nor a huge trend -- but definitely enough to create a lot of disturbances."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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