By Tom Perry
BEIRUT, May 30 (Reuters) - Jihadists battling the Lebanese army in north Lebanon were either on their way to or from Iraq, Palestinian political sources believe, a sign that the shadow of Sunni militancy there has started to fall over Arab countries nearby.
Many of the Fatah al-Islam militants had originally come to Lebanon to train for Iraq, the main front for al Qaeda in its battle with the United States, a Palestinian source in Lebanon said. Some had already fought there.
Although Iraq remains the preferred destination for jihadists, experts on al Qaeda say the group may be sending fighters out of the country to open new fronts.
That prospect alarms Arab states, which in the 1990s battled Islamist insurgencies fuelled by the return of Arab jihadists from war in Afghanistan. Arab governments were quick to send Lebanon military aid after fighting erupted on May 20.
"According to its doctrine, al Qaeda tries to open fronts in a number of places," said Montasser al-Zayyat, author of a biography on Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda's second-in-command. "Units will be dispersed from Iraq, going here and there," Zayyat told Reuters.
Fatah al-Islam, based in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon, associates itself with the ideas of al Qaeda, even if does not claim any organisational links to the network.
Numbering at least 300, Fatah al-Islam's fighters include some 75 Saudis, a senior Lebanese political source said. The group also includes Algerians, Tunisians, Lebanese and Syrians, Lebanese officials say.
The Saudi ambassador to Beirut has said at least four Saudis were among 27 militants killed in the fighting.
Some of the jihadists had arrived in Lebanon for training at bases of Fatah Uprising, a Syrian-backed Palestinian faction, Palestinian sources said. But the foreigners soon overwhelmed their hosts and took over their main base at Nahr al-Bared camp.
Like the 11 other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Nahr al-Bared is an autonomous enclave beyond the state's control.
The presence of camps off limits to the Lebanese army partly explain why jihadists have picked Lebanon as a new base. "The state itself suffers from security deficiency," said Yasser el-Sirry, a London-based Islamist condemned to death in Egypt.
"The security situation in Lebanon helps," he said.
"THE IRAQ SYNDROME"
Zayyat said al Qaeda had aimed to "open a station" in Lebanon for some time. "I imagine the main aim is to hunt Israeli or American targets," he said. Fatah al-Islam's leader said last week the group would fight Jews and Americans.
Lebanon was also "an ideal theatre" because of the presence of more than 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers and large Christian and Shi'ite Muslim populations, said Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based expert on Islamist militancy.
"We are facing a real problem in the Arab world -- the Iraq syndrome," Rashwan said. Al Qaeda's ideology and style, if not yet large numbers of its fighters, were moving out of Iraq.
Iraq remains the preferred battleground for jihadists, even if Lebanon offers them the chance to strike at Israel and Shi'ite Muslims, who Sunni hardliners consider infidels.
"For now, the focus is on getting into Iraq because of the presence of what is known as 'the principle enemy'," Sirry said, in reference to the United States. "Leaving is not a priority."
But Rashwan said the eruption of violence in Lebanon could indicate that jihadists there were having problems getting to Iraq via Syria, which has been under U.S. pressure to stem what Washington has described as a flow of fighters into Iraq.
"It means that there are security measures that forbid many of them from going there because, if they have the choice, they prefer to go to Iraq," he said. (Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet