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Lebanon’s political paralysis opens door to foreign insurgents

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (July 8) — A six-week-old conflict between Islamic militants and government troops in northern Lebanon has claimed more than 200 lives and has ruined a Palestinian refugee camp …

(New York Times News Service) BEIRUT, Lebanon (July 8) — A six-week-old conflict between Islamic militants and government troops in northern Lebanon has claimed more than 200 lives and has ruined a Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli.  The camp is now the scene of daily artillery barrages as the Lebanese army tries to flush out Fatah al Islam, a new militant group with Qaida aspirations.

The fight has drawn scrutiny here and abroad because the militants are foreigners and veterans of the war in Iraq.  As Lebanon falls into a state of political paralysis, the risk of more militants setting up base here is raising alarms, especially among European intelligence officials.

One year ago, this country found itself in the middle of a war between Israel and Hizbullah.  Although the war’s damage drew Lebanese together, they quickly turned on one another politically.  Killings, bombings and political protests have become routine.

Political forces are stalemated with no one firmly in charge.  Parliament must select a new president in September, but with the governing coalition and the opposition hostile toward each other, that could trigger an unraveling of what remains of the system of governance.

While Lebanon’s troubles are not principally about Islamic militancy, some fear it could become the kind of place that attracts more of it, especially from the Iraq war.

Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, estimates that 50 to 60 fighters are still in the camp and include skilled and determined militants from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Algeria who fought with the insurgency in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Lebanon has been hit with car bombings and other violence since the fighting with Fatah Al Islam began, including a massive car bomb in the south that killed six U.N. peacekeepers.

"We have no sleeper cells in Lebanon," said one Lebanese army official who spoke on condition of anonymity.  "They are all waking up."

Political opposition leaders are pessimistic about a deal being reached that could end the political impasse.

 "If we don’t form a national unity government from now until September, I think we are heading to chaos," said Trad Hamadeh, who stepped down as labor minister last fall and is associated with Hizbullah.  "The constitution will no longer be implemented.  There will be no cabinet able to control and run the country.  This means the country will be in a state of no laws, the loss of the system."

That is just the kind of state in which militant groups could thrive.

 

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