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Crisis in Lebanon Deepens

As Lebanon mourns the assassination in Beirut Wednesday of yet another anti-Syrian lawmaker, Walid Eido, the conflict between the Lebanese army and al-Qaida-inspired militants at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli continues into its fourth week. The fighting, which erupted on May 20, is Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. The army’s casualties at Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp last weekend were the heaviest since the fighting began.

Hanna Anbar, associate publisher of Beirut’s Daily Star, says Fatah al-Islam infiltrated the camp about six months ago, started robbing banks and collecting arms, and is now trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Anbar says the army is fighting a “gang of extremist infiltrators.” The Lebanese government believes – as do most politicians who support the government – that the arms used by Fatah al-Islam come from Syria, although Damascus denies any connection. However, Hanna Anbar notes that the Syrians have been saying for several months that – if the international tribunal is agreed upon at the United Nations – “You are going to have chaos in Lebanon. You are going to have al-Qaida in Lebanon.”

In fact, the U.N. Security Council voted two weeks ago to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the massive truck bombing in Beirut in 2005 that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others, in which Syrian intelligence was later implicated. And VOA Middle East correspondent Margaret Besheer says many people believe that the current standoff between government forces and Fatah al-Islam is “just one more Syrian intervention to distract from other troubles Syria is having, just as many people thought last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel was [due to] Iranian intervention.”

Despite Lebanon’s current economic and political crisis, Hanna Anbar says, people are generally united in their memory of 15 miserable years of civil war and by their determination to avoid any repetition.

United Press International editor Claude Salhani, whose family is from Lebanon, says it is imperative for the Lebanese army to succeed in subduing Fatah al-Islam and for the government to reassert its authority over the whole country. And in that, he says, the international community has an important role to play. The international tribunal needs to “bring closure” to Rafik Hariri’s assassination and bring to justice whoever was responsible “at whatever level of the Lebanese and Syrian governments.” Mr. Salhani says Washington can help the Lebanese government by providing the Lebanese army the “hardware they need” and by supporting Prime Minister Siniora “in the face of opposition from Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian allies.” Mr. Salhani also argues that France has a major role to play as the “former colonizer of Lebanon.” In fact, France has invited Lebanese leaders to a meeting later this month aimed at breaking the political deadlock between the Western-backed government coalition and the opposition.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.