Analysis: Shiite history repeats itself

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor  |  April 12, 2004 at 3:24 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 12 (UPI) -- Since the eruption of the recent bloody clashes in Iraq, pitting U.S. and coalition troops against Shiites and Sunnis, the situation in the war-torn country has been alternatively compared to the Vietnam war and to the Palestinian intifada. But one missing comparison has been to that of a much closer analogy -- that of Syrian and Israeli involvement in Lebanon. In both instances, the same ingredients -- Shiite fanaticism and foreign forces were involved.

One of the great dangers that the United States now faces in becoming involved in inter- and intra-Iraqi disputes is that they can inadvertently become ingrained in the conflict, as has transpired last week when the U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer ordered the closure of a Shiite publication. The censure of al-Hawza, Sheik Moqtada Sadr's publication, was the spark that ignited the latest round of fighting and set off a popular Shiite uprising that risked spiraling out of control and growing to alarming proportions.

The hazard in such a situation is that American troops could find themselves turning into another armed faction in the conflict, adding to the problem rather than to its resolution.

A precedent for this is Syria's involvement in Lebanon.

As a reminder, Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 at the height of the Lebanese civil war to ostensibly to help quell the fighting. Syrian troops arrived as part of an Arab Deterrent Force, a thinly veiled Syrian-led and dominant coalition, meant to give Syria an Arab and international blessing to intervene militarily in neighboring Lebanon.

Soon Syrian troops found themselves bogged down in inter-Lebanese politics and clashes, first siding with Christian militias fighting against Palestinian and Muslim-leftist forces. In due course, Syrian guns turned on the Christians (which were later backed by Israel) in support of the Palestinian-Muslim-leftist alliance.

Now 28 years later, the Syrians are still in Lebanon.

Another blatant comparison to the Lebanon conflict are the similarities between the firebrand, fiercely anti-American cleric Sheik Moqtada Sadr, and another young hothead Shiite cleric -- south Lebanon's Ragheb Harb.

If Harb's name does not ring any immediate bells, you are not alone. Outside of the immediate region, Harb did not raise much concern or make much news. But long before Hezbollah became a household name among counter-terrorist specialists or 24-hour cable news channels, Harb managed to win the attention of Israel to the point that they arranged for his assassination.

Sheik Harb, who came from a small village in south Lebanon called Jibsheet, had started a small movement of approximately 50-60 youngsters, called the Islamic Students Union. By the early 1980s, Harb began openly calling for armed resistance against Israel's occupation of Lebanon which had begun two years earlier, in 1978. At the time of the invasion, Harb was in Iran, but later returned to his native Jebsheet to fight the Israeli occupation with the blessing and support of Tehran's ayatollahs in 1980.

Does this scenario ring any bells yet?

According to the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Iran is spending nearly $1 billion to fund at least 18 covert centers in Iraq. The centers operate as "charities" in Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Najaf, Nasseriyah and Suleimaniyah. Iran is also reported to have sent hundreds of intelligence agents into Iraq over the last year and a half, many disguised as Iranian pilgrims and Iraqi refugees.

Another striking comparison between the Iraq of today and the Lebanon of yesterday can also be drawn between Harb and Sadr. Much like Harb's policy vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Sadr advocates a tough-line, militant approach toward the U.S. occupation of Iraq. And much like the mainstream Shiite clergy in southern Lebanon disapproved of Harb's militaristic solution to the Israeli occupation, preferring instead quiet, civil disobedience, so it would appear does Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who frowns on Sadr's call to arms.

The underlying thread in both instances and both occupations that helped fuel the civilian uprising has been the suffering of the civilian population brought about by the continued occupation. Eventually, Harb's movement paved the way for the creation of Hezbollah, and as they say, the rest is history. And history in Iraq is dangerously close to repeating itself.

Additionally, just as the United States entered Iraq to help liberate the country of its brutal dictator, so too had the Israeli army occupied south Lebanon to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization, whom the Lebanese Shiites despised for the way they comported themselves in southern Lebanon, in the area that become known as "Fatahland."

Timur Goksel, who from 1979 to 2003 served as spokesman with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, finds striking similarities between Lebanon in the 1980s and Iraq some 24 years later.

"If not correctly addressed, the Palestinian intifada would be a picnic in comparison," said Goksel. In an e-mail to this reporter, Goksel foresaw what was likely in store in Iraq when the troubles started about 10 days ago, warning that "it is not long before we see hostage cases, etc."

And eerily similar, just as the Israelis shot Harb and killed him in February 1984, hoping to quell the Shiite uprising, the United States today says it too wants to arrest or kill Sadr.

"It is all about Shiite dynamics now," Goksel told United Press International. "Do you think that Sistani and others can issue counter-edicts now? They know all about the Shiite mass dynamics."

And just as the Israelis created their own proxy army -- the South Lebanon Army -- a ragtag compilation of deserters from the Lebanese army and Christian militias who quickly disintegrated when Israel withdrew back across the border in 2000 under Hezbollah pressure, similarly, some of the newly created Iraqi units refused to engage alongside American Marines in Fallujah.

Who says that history does not repeat itself?

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