West helps Lebanon build militia to fight Hezbollah
BEIRUT -- With Western help and support from Persian Gulf states, the Lebanese government has been quietly building up a loyal force dominated by Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians in anticipation of a possible showdown with the Shia Hezbollah militia and other pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian forces.
A senior minister in Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's cabinet told The Globe and Mail that the pro-Western government has moved about 8,000 extra soldiers into the capital in the past few days in an effort to block an expected coup attempt by Hezbollah and its allies, which are planning mass anti-government demonstrations in central Beirut today.
But the buildup began 17 months ago, soon after the pro-Western peaceful Cedar Revolution that swept Mr. Siniora into office, the minister acknowledged. The government's stability may depend on the behaviour of a separate Western-backed force of 24,000 men that was dramatically strengthened to defend the government from just such a challenge.
Syria and Iran have long poured money and weapons into Lebanese groups, primarily Hezbollah. But since Mr. Siniora and his allies took office in 2005, the United States, France and several Sunni Arab countries have set about trying to create a counterbalancing force.
Critics charge that the force is dominated by Sunnis, and that its real purpose is to defend the government of Mr. Siniora, a Sunni, against the growing power of the country's large Shia population. Most of the country's Sunnis back the pro-Western government, while most Shiites support Hezbollah. The country's Christians are split.
Since the Syrian army's departure from Lebanon in early 2005, the United States and France have been providing money and training to the Internal Security Forces, as the light-blue-uniformed police force is known. With the political situation souring further in recent weeks, the United Arab Emirates stepped in to provide the unit with an emergency "gift" of thousands of rifles and dozens of police vehicles.
The UAE and other Sunni Arab states are concerned about Iran's widening influence in the region, cabinet minister Ahmad Fatfat said in an interview, adding that the ISF has received intelligence help from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait. Iran is Hezbollah's primary backer.
"In Lebanon, it seems we are an arena between Syria and Israel, but there's a new role for Iran. [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei spoke of this clearly," Mr. Fatfat said, referring to recent comments in which Iran's supreme leader said Lebanon would be the battleground on which "America and the Zionists" would be defeated.
Today, the ISF will be responsible for defending the Prime Minister's office, known as the Grand Serail, from demonstrators expected to pour into the adjacent Riad al-Sohl square. The backbone will be a smaller special-forces unit of 325 crack troops known as the Panthers, identifiable by their dark blue uniforms and modern weaponry.
With the regular Lebanese army seen as unreliable in a crisis -- it fractured along sectarian lines during the civil war -- Mr. Siniora's government and its foreign backers have invested heavily in the ISF.
The United States, which sees Mr. Siniora's government as a flagship for its "new Middle East," gave $1.5-million (U.S.) in "rushed" military assistance to the ISF just before the outbreak of the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has provided training. Washington promised millions more, but it's unclear whether it was ever delivered.
The ISF has also set up a separate $30-million intelligence-gathering apparatus -- in a country that already had three other such services -- because the other forces were seen as dominated by Christians and Shiites and infiltrated by Syria. Observers say the ISF's intelligence unit is widely reviled by suspicious Christians and Shiites.
"There is no trust of the police here. The police are seen as a Sunni-dominated sectarian force," said Timur Goksel, a professor of public administration at the American University in Beirut.
According to Amin Hteit, a military analyst and retired Lebanese army general, the ISF was a secondary force of about 12,000 men, compared with 63,000 in the regular army, before the Syrian withdrawal. Reflecting the generally accepted population breakdown, a third of its members were Shiites.
The ISF has since doubled in number, with Sunnis and Christians making up most of the new troops. According to Gen. Hteit, just 1,000 of the 12,000 additions are Shiites.
Gen. Hteit, a Shiite who keeps a framed picture in his home of himself with pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, said the force was built up and its Shia representation lessened in order "to keep the government far from popular danger. They need a force to defend the government palace."
Meanwhile, he said, the army has shrunk to 40,000 men, 15,000 of whom are now policing the south of the country, a term of the ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel.
The ISF is already deeply resented among those who plan to march on the centre of Beirut today. In October, riots were sparked after two children were killed and 12 people were injured when ISF members opened fire on a demonstration in a Shia neighbourhood.
Sayyidah Ali Naji, whose 11-year-old son Mohammed died after being shot twice in the head during those demonstrations, said she will be protesting today. "We expect anything from [the ISF]," she said. "But we are not afraid."
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