Letter from Lebanon

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People could be forgiven for thinking the recent fighting in Lebanon is due to clashes between fanatics. But, as Ayman Wehbe reports, it is part of the wider imperialist battle for the Middle East.

At first there might not seem to be a strong connection between the Lebanese Army's siege of a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon and the US failure in Iraq. Yet they are both the result of a US strategy which tries to manage other setbacks across the Middle East. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice described it as "constructive instability".

The neocons believe that by spreading "instability" they will regain control of events, or at least shape the chaos in their favour.

In Iraq the US-led occupation has used Shia Muslim sectarian groups to counterbalance the Sunni-dominated insurgency. Then they encouraged the formation of Sunni Muslim sectarian groups to counter the rise of the Shias. But the more powerful these groups become, the less reliable they are for the US, hobbling their efforts to draw in a layer of Sunni and Shias to support the occupation. This form of crisis-driven strategy can create a confused picture of shifting alliances.

A similar process is being played out in Lebanon. Following Israel's defeat by Hizbollah last summer, US priorities in the region turned to containing Iran and Syria, and their Shia Muslim allies at any costs. This strategy include flirting with the Al Qaida groups they profess to hate.

Late last year Fatah al-Islam - then a little known Al Qaida affiliated group - appeared in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon. The region is dominated by Saad Hariri's Future Movement - a firm supporter of US policy in the Middle East.

Hariri was encouraged by Fatah al-Islam's declaration that they opposed "Shia expansion" and, in common with the government, opposed Hizbollah and Iran.

Hariri provided the group with funds and political support. The respected Lebanese daily Al-Safir noted it was composed mostly of Saudis and Lebanese militants, who were allowed into the Palestinian camp by the Lebanese army.

They were also allowed to rent apartments in the Meatein area of the northern city of Tripoli - an upmarket area where apartments cost up to $100,000. One of the apartments used by the group belongs to a leading supporter of the Future Movement. The Future Movement also backs a similar group in the south of the country, Jund al-Sham, which is not Palestinian, and has launched repeated attacks on Lebanese soldiers and bomb attacks on civilian areas.

It is tempting to get sucked into conspiracy theories about the Middle East. Yet in this case the facts are there for all to see, and the actors have all admitted their part. The authoritative Washington-based Jamestown Foundation recently confirmed most of these allegations.

According to Lebanese newspapers Hariri withdrew support for Fatah al-Islam at the request of the US envoy to Lebanon. In a series of events that could just as easily come from a farce, the militants went to the local bank to pick up their wages, only to find that their cheques "were no longer any good". They pulled out their guns and robbed the till.

The group had played its role, now it would be classified as an "enemy" and used as a pretext to attack the Palestinian camps.

Why the sudden turn?

Since 2004 the US and France have been demanding the disarmament of Hizbollah and Palestinian resistance groups in Lebanon - part of UN resolution 1559. The Israeli war on Lebanon last July was the first move in this process. The Israelis would crush Hizbollah, while the Lebanese army, which did not fire a shot, would move in to fill the vacuum. But Israel failed.

Fatah al-Islam emerged after the summer war, not as part of the resistance, but by spreading fear among Shia Muslims. The subsequent attack on Nahr el-Bared meant that in the process of clearing out the "terrorists" the Lebanese army could pacify the second largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon.

In a battle with some 200 militants, the homes of 30,000 refugees were destroyed. Adding yet another wave of homeless refugees to the tens of thousands who lost their homes last summer risks deepening the anger at the government.

For the US, destroying Lebanon is a risk worth taking if it can take control of events. Their problem, as in Iraq, is that there is no guarantee they will succeed.

Ayman Wehbe is a Lebanese socialist