BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- "Bin Laden is going to destroy the United States the same way that he destroyed the Soviet Union," said Mustafa, a men's hairdresser in Beirut.
"Take it from me," he shouted over the din of Al-Jazeera Television's live images from the war in Afghanistan. "I swear by Allah that America will learn its lesson from bin Laden, and they will be defeated," said the old barber on Hamra Street.
The mood among many people in the streets of the Lebanese capital, as in much of the Middle East, and the rest of the Islamic world is a one of mixed emotions.
"For the first time, we are telling America, 'God help you,'" said Ounsi el-Hajj, a senior editor with An-Nahar, Beirut's leading daily newspaper, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and America's war on terrorism. The United States claims that Osama bin Laden, residing in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban rulers, is the mastermind behind the attacks.
Lebanon knows only too well the ugliness of war. While Al-Jazeera showed images of American warplanes dropping bombs over Afghanistan, Lebanese Radio reported that Israeli planes had violated Lebanon's air space once again. This is a common occurrence, especially in the southern part of the country, where Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, maintains an armed presence.
And as one war rages in Central Asia, so does the other one just south of Lebanon, in Palestine, which is closer, not only in the geographical sense. Afghanistan's war may be thousands of miles from America, but it's much closer to the Lebanese, many of whom believe is directly related to the current crisis in the Palestinian territories.
Many Lebanese believe the United States is committing a mistake in Afghanistan, and will eventually get pulled into a long, tortuous war, much like the Soviets did.
"This is the American century vs. all," said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community. But if many people here support bin Laden, others, while criticizing the United States, stop short of endorsing him.
"He is not the model I want," said, Jumblatt of bin Laden.
Lebanon is a country that experienced first hand the insanity of a devastating civil war that tore the country apart, pitting Christians against Muslims, left against right, and opposing regional political ideologies against each other for more than 15 years.
If anyone can relate to the destruction, the bombing and the invasion of one's land by foreign armies, it's the Lebanese. Like the Afghanis, they have seen foreign armies bomb them, invade them and play one faction off against another.
Afghanistan was torn between the East and the West, with the Soviet Union occupying them in hopes of expanding their empire and turning Afghanistan into another satellite state. The United States, through covert and then not-so covert means, jumped into the fray to help defeat the Russians. The CIA became involved in training and arming the Taliban, and the likes of bin Laden, who initially were friendly to the United States. We all know how that one turned out.
Similarly, Lebanon has seen neighbors become invaders and former friends turn to foes.
Israel invaded the south of the country in 1976 and again in 1982 and was finally forced out by Hezbollah's Islamic guerrillas, much like the Soviets were by the mujahedin and the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Then, the Syrians came. They were initially invited into Lebanon by the Christian minority to help battle the Muslim-Palestinian alliance in 1975. Syria, who has never looked on Lebanon's independence, free political system, and liberal media approvingly, was only too glad to oblige, and since, have refused to pull out.
Some Lebanese leaders now say the Syrians have overcome their stay. Today, the Syrian secret police, the Mokhabarat, pulls all the political and military strings in the country. As one political leader who begged not to be named said, "No major government job is filled without Damascus first blessing it."
Just how far the Syrian tentacle reaches was demonstrated recently, when a politician who voiced his opinions about Syria's influence on Lebanese politics, phoned back three times to retract his statement, and to make sure his initial outbursts against Damascus never made it to print.
Some Lebanese politicians now fear that the United States might strike a deal with Syria in order to win their collaboration in the war on terrorism. In return for siding with the Bush administration, Lebanese leaders fear Syrian President Bashar Assad would be given free reign over Lebanon.
Unconfirmed reports say that Damascus has handed over to the United States a complete file on Sept. 11 suspected pilot-terrorist Mohammad Atta, and has turned over two suspects they nabbed in Syria, or the Bekaa valley, which they control.
Although Iran still influences Hezbollah, it is Syria that currently controls it.
The United States, meanwhile, continues to regard Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and two of the 22 most wanted terrorists on the U.S. government's recently-released list are believed to have had close affiliation with Hezbollah.
Imad Mughniyeh, a one time a prominent figure with Hezbollah, is high on the wanted list. Mughniyeh is believed to be responsible for the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, as well as for the hijacking of a TWA airliner and the killing of a U.S. Navy diver. His whereabouts are not known, thought recent intelligence reports say he left Iran shortly after Sept.11.
Hezbollah refuses to discus him, or past kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon, as well as any other past terrorist actions aimed at the United States.
At the same time, if anyone can relate to the backlash of terrorism on their country, it is also the Lebanese, who have witnessed more destruction during the civil war and Israeli invasion.
Officially the war in Lebanon is over and at first glance the country appears on the way to recovery from those dark years. But Lebanon's woes are far from over. Unemployment remains high, the economy is faltering, tourists have been frightened away by the Sept. 11 attacks, the much-anticipated Francophonie Summit was cancelled because of the situation in Afghanistan, and the country is still occupied by Syrian troops.
As long as the Palestinian question remains unsolved, the threat of Israel and Syria fighting in Lebanon remains real.
Looking at Lebanon today, one cannot help but feel a resemblance with Hong Kong. From the outside, the city appears to be vibrant, full of life, energetic and elegant and constantly on the move. But just below the surface, like Hong Kong, there is another larger, more powerful country with territorial designs pulling the strings.
"I would like it to be like Hong Kong," said a leading politician with a laugh. "They have one country, two systems. Here, we have one country and one system," and with a nervous turn of the head, he points behind, him indicating towards Syria.