Lebanon: Haven for foreign militants

BEIRUT, 17 May 2007 (IRIN) - "I came to Lebanon because I know it is a free and open country so I can enter easily," said a Shi'a fighter who claims to be from Iraq's Mehdi Army

  • a militia that is widely accused of brutal sectarian killings against Sunnis. IRIN interviewed him in a small rented room in Beirut's southern suburbs.

"But it is also a sectarian country so I feel safe here in the [Shi'a] suburbs," said the fighter, who was recuperating inside the security zone controlled by Hezbollah, Lebanon's militant Shi'a organisation. He agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

After a month lying low in his dingy flat praying, reading and watching DVDs of fire-brand Shi'a religious leaders, the young man - who said he had made no contact with Hezbollah - was due to travel back to Iraq last week to re-join "the fight against occupation" for "the creation of an Islamic Iraq".

Testimonies by self-confessed sectarian militants show they are using Lebanese territory for increasing numbers of deadly attacks which are threatening stability in the country and across the region.

The wider security breakdown inside Lebanon is creating a fertile breeding ground for extremist groups, and the country is becoming a stop-off point for foreign jihadists, say experts, reviving memories of the Lebanon's multi-factional 15-year civil war.

Lebanon still bears deep scars from its civil war, which left more than 100,000 people dead, another 100,000 handicapped by injuries and some 900,000 people, representing one-fifth of the pre-war population, displaced from their homes. Analysts say up to a quarter of a million Lebanese emigrated permanently.

"Great concern"

While Lebanon's divided leaders bicker over national sovereignty and arms, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed "great concern at the allegations coming from various sides and parties about illegal arms trafficking and the possible arming of a variety of Lebanese and non-Lebanese groups." A return to Lebanon's darkest days "must not happen," he said.

Ban made the remarks in his fifth report on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon and the extension of government authority throughout the country.

Ban warned that Lebanon's fragile post-civil war status quo was in danger of unravelling, and this could lead "to widespread rearming and thus raise the spectre of a renewed confrontation among the Lebanese."

Jund as-Sham

South of Beirut, in Ein al-Helway, the largest and most lawless of Lebanon's 12 Palestinian camps where a majority of the 400,000 refugees live, two Fatah members were killed last week in clashes with Jund as-Sham, a Sunni militant group whose name translates as 'Soldiers of the Levant.'

The group, whose active fighters are believed to number fewer than 50 out of an estimated membership of up to 250, according to local media reports, has frequently been blamed by the Syrian authorities for a string of failed attacks in Syria over the past two years.

A revenge attack on Tuesday by unidentified gunmen in the camp wounded two Jund as-Sham members, according to a Palestinian security source quoted in Lebanon's The Daily Star.

A senior official in Hezbollah, which remained Lebanon's only armed group after the country's 1975-1990 civil war and whose political wing is leading the opposition, told IRIN he believed the Sunni-led government "and its US allies" were funding the growth of Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon. US officials have consistently denied these accusations and consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

"Jund as-Sham is sponsored by the pro-government group," said Nawaf Mousawi, Hezbollah's foreign affairs spokesman. "The government and US administration have found no way to contain Hezbollah so they are provoking sectarianism to drive the Sunni population towards extremism and against the Shi'as."

Jund as-Sham has pledged to destroy Israel, but last week reported that four of its members, including two senior commanders, were killed by Syrian forces as they attempted to enter Iraq - in a clash that left five Syrian soldiers dead. Syria has not reported the deaths or confirmed there was a clash.

The Ain al-Helway attacks followed a similar security breakdown in Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon close to the Syrian border. Lebanese soldiers surrounded the camp and one of them was killed recently by unidentified armed assailants.


The two most significant reported violations of Resolution 1559's demand for disarming militias over the past six months were weapons seized from members of the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) in north Lebanon and a truck full of rockets and mortars seized in the eastern Bekaa Valley, which Hezbollah said was bound for its fighters.