Commentary: Which war am I watching?

By CLAUDE SALHANI  |  April 1, 2003 at 9:50 PM
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LONDON, April 1 (UPI) -- Not being "embedded" I am forced to satisfy my journalistic curiosity by indulging in an overdose of television coverage, a simple feat really, given the multitude of satellite and cable news channels covering every angle of the war in Iraq. But as I flip from one channel to the next, I often catch myself wondering which war I am looking at.

As British and American forces engage in house-to-house fighting in Iraq's dusty towns and villages, the television images slowly start to become hazy and blurred. Not the actual images mind you, which thanks to modern technology remain sharp, but the picture unfolding in my mind. And questions start to pop up in my subconscious almost as rapidly as some of the machine guns fired by Royal Marines on the tortuous road to Basra.

Military experts are practically unanimous when they say that no two wars are identical. That is correct, they are not. Each one comes with its own complexities and horrors. As a reporter who has covered 12 conflicts, I concur. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind I could not help but think I had seen these images before. They were all too familiar.

Are these images jumping at me from the blue-hued television screen those of coalition troops fighting to "liberate" Iraq of its tyrant, or, are they of Israelis fighting the Palestinian intifada on the West Bank and Gaza? Are the blindfolded, handcuffed prisoners being led away Iraqis or Palestinians? In my mind, they all become indistinguishable at times.

Is this live broadcast of the mother of all battles -- the one to bring democracy to Mesopotamia -- or yet, another frightening comparison -- specters of Israel's 1982 incursion into Lebanon, another attempt to "liberate" an Arab nation from oppression and impose security.

Indeed the similarities between the current conflict being fought along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and Israel's Lebanese misadventure are numerous -- and one that the allies would be wise to take lessons from.

As in Iraq, the initial stages of the Lebanon battle also took place in the south of the country, an area heavily populated by Shiite Muslims.

As the Israelis entered Lebanon in June 1982, pushing Palestinian fedayeen north, they were initially greeted as liberators, welcomed with rice and rosewater by the Shiite Lebanese. (Though we have yet to see this occur in Iraq).

The Israeli drive north towards the capital, Beirut, bore striking similarities to the coalition's rapid advance on Baghdad. The aerial bombardment of Baghdad reminded me of Beirut in the summer of '82.

The Israelis reached Beirut's suburbs within days. Likewise, only days into the Iraq war, the coalition announced they had arrived within 60 miles of Baghdad.

Then came the siege of Beirut and start of the quagmire. Eventually, the Israelis entered Beirut. And it was not pretty. Regime change did come about, though. But then came soured relations between the Shiites and the Israelis. Then came attacks on the Israelis, who in very little time went from being liberators to occupiers. Then came militant Shiite groups who started forcefully opposing Israel's "liberation." The petals disappeared to be replaced by bullets and bombs.

Then came suicide attacks and even donkeys laden with explosives that were detonated as they neared Israeli military checkpoints. Then came the mounting casualty toll. And then the Israelis decided it was time to leave.

Another comparison can be drawn with the U.S. Marine involvement in Beirut in 1982 after the departure of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization from the Lebanese capital. Here again, the Marines were greeted with flowers, rice and joy when they first arrived. But the honeymoon was short-lived. Within months, Shiite groups started targeting the Marines, and the Marines replied with barrages of 16-inch guns from the battleship New Jersey.

Those of us who were based in Beirut at the time and saw the worst coming were ignored. At best, we were rebuffed as prophets of gloom and doom. Visiting American officials refused to face the facts that the Marines -- much as the Israelis -- had long overstayed their welcome. The outcome in both cases, as they say, is history.

For history not to repeat itself, let us hope that those calling the shots today remember their history books and not repeat mistakes of the past.

Given the formidable military might of the Anglo-American coalition, there is very little doubt that they will prevail. Saddam will be removed from power and the people of Iraq will be given a chance at living a better life without his awful tyranny.

The importance here, as was the case in previous wars that now all seem to blur into one, is to avoid a repetition of past mistakes. As in Lebanon, America should not overstay its welcome in Iraq.

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(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International).

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