ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., March 7 (UPI) -- Al-Qaida has begun to infiltrate fighters in parts of southern Lebanon, replacing Hezbollah militants who were forced out of the area by Israel during last summer's violent clashes, said a well-informed Arab politician who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Still, the source said, this deployment of Islamist militants to south Lebanon is being carried out "with the discreet approval of Iran and Syria." Tehran and Damascus hope this will give them greater bargaining power in negotiating with the West over Iran's nuclear dossier and the ongoing investigation and pending trial into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syrian officials are prime suspects.
He added that the situation in south Lebanon was very "concerning," and was worrying moderate Arab leaders in the region who fear that with al-Qaida combatants now in striking distance of Israel, the situation in the Middle East could take a turn for the worst at any moment.
This new development is also very worrisome to countries that have contributed large number of troops to the upgraded UNIFIL, the United Nation Interim Force in Lebanon, particularly Italy and France.
One major concern is that the UNIFIL troops could become targets of al-Qaida should either Syria or Iran ever wish to pressure France or Italy or any other contributing nation. France, for example, fears its contingent in southern Lebanon could become the target of attacks as a result of Paris' support for the Lebanese government and the international community to have an international tribunal examine the assassination of Hariri.
Syria is widely suspected of having had a hand in the killing of Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, and some intelligence specialists believe the order to have the former Lebanese prime minister killed came from "very high up."
Hariri's death triggered massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon, which, combined with strong political pressure from France and the United States, eventually forced Damascus to withdraw its uniformed troops from Lebanon. Western intelligence analysts, however, believe Syria maintained an important intelligence contingent in Lebanon. Those, along with Hezbollah -- which receives much of its political, military and financial aid from Damascus and Tehran -- makes the Syrian-Iranian alliance a powerful force in Lebanon's political landscape. Now add in al-Qaida and the cocktail becomes all the more potent.
Following last summer's war in Lebanon, Rome and Paris had agreed to provide several thousand additional troops to revitalize UNIFIL and help the Lebanese army as it deployed in the southern part of the country for the first time in more than 24 years, filling the void left by Hezbollah after their forced departure from the area.
Indeed, if proven true -- and other independent sources seem to confirm the report of al-Qaida becoming more present in southern Lebanon -- there are ample reasons for concern.
Al-Qaida becoming operational in southern Lebanon greatly alters the geo-political map of the area once again. Moving into what has long been regarded as Hezbollah territory places the militant Islamist organization for the first time since its inception within striking range of Israeli cities, towns and settlements. Al-Qaida has repeatedly called for the destruction of the State of Israel.
During the 34-day war that pitted the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah and Israel into a devastating conflict, hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in northern Israel were forced to flee south to escape a deluge of rockets fired into northern Israel by the Shiite guerillas.
Furthermore, this re-kindles the precarious situation in southern Lebanon, making the Lebanese-Israeli frontier yet again a potential trigger point for a new Middle East crisis.
Starting in the late 1960s, throughout the 1970s and up until 1982, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Palestinian factions were expelled from Lebanon, the presence of armed Palestinian groups in the Lebanese-Israeli border region was the cause of numerous Israeli incursions into southern Lebanon and air raids over the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Within a short while the PLO and other Palestinian armed groups had become the de facto authority, having taken control of large swaths of southern Lebanon and in the process forcing out the Lebanese army, pushing it north of the Litani River. With the Palestinians masters of most of the border area, Israel began referring to the Palestinian-controlled parts of south Lebanon as Fatahland -- and Israeli raids became more frequent.
The departure of Hezbollah from the border area and its replacement by units of the Lebanese army and UNIFIL was to herald a new era of tranquility to south Lebanon. But the arrival of al-Qaida will once again invite Israeli military intervention. If indeed Damascus and Tehran instigated al-Qaida's introduction to south Lebanon, they may have created a monster that will one day turn on them.
The Sunni branch of Islam, to which al-Qaida belongs, has never been too fond of the Alawites who rule Damascus or the Shiite clergy in Iran.
(Comments to Claude@upi.com.)