Special Correspondent, Middle East
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Nov 1, 2010

Analysis: Military reflex alone can’t quell Yemen militants

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Al Qaeda militants in the mountains of Yemen posting bombs to America? Order more drone strikes or send in the Marines. If only it were that simple.

The United States has no easy options in tackling the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based outfit whose growing expertise may one day match its declared ambitions to harm the West and the Saudi monarchy next door.

Oct 13, 2010

Analysis: Iran leader cheered in Beirut, skewered at home

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad basked in a rock-star welcome from Hezbollah’s Shi’ite loyalists on Wednesday, but his trip to Lebanon may offer only a brief respite from daunting challenges at home.

Many among the rice-throwing Lebanese crowds on the Beirut airport road will have benefited from the $1 billion or so that Hezbollah says it received from its Iranian sponsors for reconstruction after a 2006 war with Israel.

Oct 13, 2010

Iran leader cheered in Beirut, skewered at home

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad basked in a rock-star welcome from Hezbollah’s Shi’ite loyalists on Wednesday, but his trip to Lebanon may offer only a brief respite from daunting challenges at home.

Many among the rice-throwing Lebanese crowds on the Beirut airport road will have benefited from the $1 billion or so that Hezbollah says it received from its Iranian sponsors for reconstruction after a 2006 war with Israel.

Oct 11, 2010

Go green, Hezbollah guerrilla chief tells Lebanese

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Plant trees, protect forests, preserve Lebanon’s beauty. A message from the environment minister? Greenpeace campaigner? Eco-tourism entrepreneur?

No, this time it was Hezbollah guerrilla chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, taking time out from diatribes against Israel and its U.S. ally to deliver a distinctly green-tinged appeal.

Oct 7, 2010
via FaithWorld

Christians in Lebanon fret despite privileged role

Photo

After a panicky mass flight from his Christian village, Sami Abi Daher watched from across the valley as Syrian-backed Druze fighters burned and looted it. That was back in 1983 when battles forced tens of thousands of Christians from their homes in the Aley and Shouf hills near Beirut in a bloody postscript to Israel’s 1982 invasion. (Photo: Supporters of Christian Lebanese Forces commemorate the Lebanese Resistance Martyrs in Jouniyeh, north of Beirut, September 25, 2010./ Mohamed Azakir)

Abi Daher, a former Christian militiaman, has never returned to live in his village, Rishmaya, instead working and bringing up his three children in a Christian district of Beirut.

Oct 7, 2010

Al Qaeda only one of Yemen’s myriad woes

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Yemen’s colossal economic problems still eclipse, and surely fuel, a growing threat from al Qaeda militancy, highlighted by the second attack on British diplomats in Sanaa this year.

Most Yemenis are afflicted by the interlocking effects of a population explosion, depleting water and oil resources, food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, corruption and lawlessness.

Aug 29, 2010

Analysis: Iraq no pushover in regional power struggle

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The weakness and wealth of Iraq, now shorn of all but 50,000 U.S. troops, tempt its anxious neighbors to vie for influence among Iraqi factions struggling to form a government nearly six months after an election.

Iraq’s fledgling army remains ill-equipped to defend the national borders, but for now Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria are pursuing their goals mostly by non-military means.

Aug 29, 2010

Iraq no pushover in regional power struggle

BEIRUT, Aug 29 (Reuters) – The weakness and wealth of Iraq, now shorn of all but 50,000 U.S. troops, tempt its anxious neighbours to vie for influence among Iraqi factions struggling to form a government nearly six months after an election.

Iraq’s fledgling army remains ill-equipped to defend the national borders, but for now Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria are pursuing their goals mostly by non-military means.

None can count on getting the upper hand.

The 2003 U.S.-led invasion empowered Shi’ite Islamist groups friendly to Iran, but intra-Shi’ite conflicts, assertive Shi’ite politicians and core Iraqi nationalism limit even Tehran’s sway.

Turkey, using its growing regional influence, diplomatic reach, economic power and new popularity in the Arab world to act as a soft-spoken counterweight to Iran, advocates bringing Sunnis and Kurds, as well as Shi’ites, into any new government in Baghdad.

Although the U.S. combat mission ends this week without an agreed Iraqi government in place to check spurts of violence, adjacent countries seem less inclined to revive the widespread bloodletting that threatened to consume Iraq a few years ago.

"In 2005, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia were all feeding the violence in Iraq; the United States was adrift without a strategy; and the Iraqi government and security forces were barely existent," said Eurasia Group analyst David Bender.

Today, he argued, those neighbours preferred stability in Iraq, Iraqi security forces had improved and the viability of the Iraqi state was not being threatened as it was in 2005.



STARTING FROM ZERO

Even patchy progress in state-building, almost from scratch after the United States removed Saddam Hussein, banned his Baath Party and disbanded the army, has helped cap outside meddling.

"The stronger the state in terms of capacity and legitimacy, the weaker the regional factors," said Beirut-based sociologist Faleh Abdul-Jabbar. "So we are in better shape than in 2004-8."

He said foreign powers had to reckon with Iraqi leaders who had gained strength from their grip on the government, the state and its resources. They could not just dictate orders.

Abdul-Jabbar cited Iran’s failure to persuade its closest Shi’ite allies to swing behind acting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki after the indecisive March vote narrowly gave former premier Iyad Allawi the biggest single bloc in parliament.

"Moqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim refused to endorse Maliki, and Maliki refused to join hands with them despite tremendous, unbelievable pressure from the Iranians," he said.

Secular Turkey, ruled by a moderate Sunni Islamist party , looks askance at any line-up that would allow Shi’ite factions to exclude disenchanted minority Sunnis from power — a scenario that dismays Saudi Arabia and many other Arab countries.

They see a share of power for Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who won many Sunni votes in the March election, as the best way to help reintegrate Sunnis into Iraqi politics to avoid any return to the Sunni insurgency that helped al Qaeda militants flourish.

The Americans, who were impressed when Maliki defied Iranian wishes and attacked Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia in 2008, also want an inclusive Baghdad government, perhaps one aligning Allawi’s bloc with that of Maliki and a Kurdish alliance.

Personal ambitions as much as political differences have hindered the emergence of any such coalition. Iraq’s neighbours also find it easier to block alliances than to forge them.



STRAINED ALLIANCES

Even regional allies such as Iran and Syria are at odds over Iraq — it goes against the Arab nationalist grain of the secular Baathists who rule Syria, a Sunni-majority country, to see pro-Iranian Shi’ite Islamists monopolise power in Baghdad.

Turkey, while pursuing its own interests in Iraq, has avoided antagonising Iran, a valued trading partner, and has sought ways to resolve Tehran’s nuclear dispute with the West.

The United States, having upset the regional chessboard by invading Iraq, will see its power wane as its troops withdraw.

"Iran has to a great degree already found its role in Iraq. The U.S. combat withdrawal will allow Iran to entrench that position," said Gala Riani of IHS Global Insight.

Yet political dominance eludes Iran, which has also met resistance from the Shi’ite religious schools in the holy city of Najaf, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a heavyweight cleric revered across the Shi’ite world, challenges the doctrines of clerical rule that underpin the Islamic Republic.

"Iraq is theologically more important to Shi’ite Islam than Iran," said Paul Rogers, a professor at Britain’s Bradford University, alluding to Iraq’s great Shi’ite shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala. "This may tend to limit Iran’s religious influence."

For now, Iraq’s neighbours are jockeying for political influence rather than pursuing their goals by force.

That could change.

If Iraq’s post-election deadlock persists, the greater the risk of its security gains unravelling. Political, ethnic and sectarian groups might eventually abandon the bargaining process and return to violence to secure their perceived interests.

Any such breakdown, particularly if it led to a showdown between Arabs and Kurds in the north, could draw in Turkey, Iran or Syria, which each have their own restive Kurdish minorities.

Abdul-Jabbar said military intervention by Iraq’s neighbours could not be entirely discounted, even though it was an extreme scenario made less likely even by a reduced U.S. troop presence.

"But if this stalemate lingers on, if the Baathists decide to go violent again, if the army disintegrates, why not?" (Editing by Michael Christie)



Aug 19, 2010

Lebanese doubt Hariri tribunal will deliver justice

BEIRUT, Aug 19 (Reuters) – The U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, inspires scant faith among Lebanese.

Nearly 18 months after it began to function, the court has yet to file indictments for the huge bombing on Feb. 14, 2005 in which Hariri and 22 others died. It has no suspects in custody.

Instead of delivering truth, justice and an end to a culture of impunity prevailing since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, the tribunal — and the U.N. investigation that preceded it — has so far failed to dispel the doubts of its detractors. Even its supporters can barely conceal their disquiet.

Perceptions are rife here that the hybrid court, which has Lebanese as well as international judges, is somehow a pawn in murky tussles for influence involving Israel, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and others.

"This isn’t an isolated legal process. It’s a heavily political process," said Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri.

The court denies being swayed by politics, saying it works in line with the highest international judicial standards. "Its proceedings are driven by these rules and the burden of proof, not by outside influence," said spokeswoman Fatima Issawi.

Obviously, the tribunal could best assert its credibility by producing compelling evidence to identify and convict Hariri’s assassins. It may yet do so, but few Lebanese would bet on a "smoking gun" emerging from a mishap-prone investigation which at first relied on witnesses who later recanted their testimony. Chances that the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, would soon file indictments dimmed this week when he received evidence from Hezbollah, via the Lebanese authorities, which the Iranian and Syrian-backed group says points to an Israeli hand in the crime.

Having requested that Hezbollah submit its material, Bellemare will now need time to review it — although few in Lebanon believe an international court would ever have been created had an Israeli track been suspected at the outset.



DISCREDITING THE TRIBUNAL

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, responding to reports that the tribunal planned to indict some of his men, has sought to discredit it by showing on television what he said was intercepted Israeli surveillance film of routes used by Hariri.

He also suggested that Lebanese arrested in recent months as spies for Israel, some of whom worked for telephone firms, could have manipulated cellphone evidence gathered by investigators.

Nasrallah, who leads Lebanon’s strongest armed force, calls the court an "Israeli project" against Hezbollah and its allies. The possibility that even "rogue" Hezbollah members might face charges seemed so explosive that Syrian and Saudi heads of state jointly visited Beirut in July to calm fears of sectarian tension between Nasrallah’s Shi’ite followers and Sunnis loyal to Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the slain statesman’s son.

On Wednesday, Hariri welcomed Hezbollah’s submission of its data on the assassination and reaffirmed his own commitment to the tribunal as "the adequate body for achieving justice".

Lebanese views on whether that is indeed the case reflect the rifts between those who see the West as a malign handmaiden of Israel and those whose worst fears focus on Iran and Syria.

"Both sides have grounds not to have faith in the process," said Nadim Shehadi, of Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.

"Those who want it to succeed are losing hope because it’s so slow and bureaucratic and costly. Those who don’t want it to succeed have the conspiracy theories," he said, accusing the tribunal’s opponents of being the ones politicising it.

For Omar Nashabe, a journalist with al-Akhbar, a newspaper often sympathetic to Hezbollah, the reverse is true.

"What is cruel is when you pretend this mechanism is for justice, whereas in the back of your brain you are creating a mechanism that serves your political interests," he said, alluding to Western powers that drive the U.N. Security Council.



REVULSION AGAINST SYRIA

The tribunal, with a far narrower mandate than international bodies set up elsewhere to tackle war crimes or genocide, is the child of a moment when Hariri’s killing united much Lebanese, Western and Arab opinion against Syria, forcing it to loosen its 29-year military, security and political grip on Lebanon.

The early reports of U.N. investigators implicated Syria, which denied any involvement and has since largely emerged from diplomatic isolation to regain much of its influence in Lebanon.

Even Hariri, who used to accuse the Syrians of killing his father, has mended his fences with Damascus since becoming prime minister, saying it was up to the tribunal to produce the truth.

Soon after the tribunal began work in March 2009 it freed four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals held for four years without charge, saying it did not have enough evidence to indict them.

Bellemare has kept largely silent on what he plans next.

"We are at a crunch point now," said Michael Young, a Lebanese analyst who has often criticised the investigation for failing to pursue Syrian leads aggressively enough.

"If Bellemare doesn’t have enough to indict now, it’s very hard to see what magic bullet he will fire off that will enable him to make a formal indictment in the foreseeable future."

Instead, the prosecutor might ask Lebanon to make arrests, Young predicted — a request that Beirut’s unity government, which includes Hezbollah, would find hard to comply with.

"Nasrallah’s gamble is that politics will come to overwhelm the legal side of the investigation," said Young.

Critics of the tribunal, and even some of its supporters, lament the selective nature of its quest, essentially to bring to justice the killers of one politician in a land with a long, bloody history of assassinations, wars and Israeli invasions.

"It was part of a larger political decision to put pressure on Syria and Hezbollah, who are supposed to have been the bad guys in this story," argued Karim Makdisi, who teaches international relations at the American University of Beirut.

"In the Arab region there’s tremendous distrust for the ‘international community’ and what’s been done in Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq," he said.

"You cannot come and parachute something like the tribunal on top and say, well, this has a life of its own and people shouldn’t believe in conspiracy theories." (Editing by Jon Hemming)



Aug 11, 2010

Devoted crowds throng Hezbollah’s Lebanon theme park

MLEETA, Lebanon (Reuters) – If you have an urge to inspect mangled Israeli tanks, toy with a rocket launcher or explore a genuine rock-cut guerrilla bunker, Hezbollah’s multi-media theme park in south Lebanon is just the place.

The Shi’ite Muslim group, which fought Israel to a stalemate four years ago and has been preparing for the next war ever since, has applied a creative flair to its “resistance tourist landmark” at Mleeta that mirrors its innovative military skills.

    • About Alistair

      "I cover the Middle East, with an emphasis on political analysis, region-wide stories and in-depth features. I live in Beirut and have been in my current post since June 2006. Outside my main Middle Eastern beat, I have covered Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan."
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