First Evidence of Foreign Fighters in Iraq

When the Lebanese police arrested Moammer Abdullah Aouama last month, they claimed they had caught one of the men behind a series of bomb attacks against American fast-food restaurants in Lebanon. He had, supposedly, been handed to the authorities by Palestinians in the huge Ein el-Helwe refugee camp in Sidon where he had been hiding. But the real story is a little different. Moammer Aouama, say Palestinian sources, was loyal to Osama bin Laden and was en route to Iraq when he was picked up by the police.

For weeks now there have been reports that Islamists in Ein el-Helwe – where thousands of Palestinians have turned to Sunni Islam for their political inspiration rather than the discredited nationalism of the past – have been travelling to Iraq to fight the Americans. One local Lebanese journalist believes that more than 100 fighters have left via Syria for Iraq, although Palestinians say the true figure is only in the dozens. Nevertheless, the exodus from the camp does provide some evidence that the Bush administration’s insistence that “foreign fighters” are arriving in Iraq has some basis in truth.

Aouama is a Yemeni and was captured with a Palestinian fighter, Ali Moussa Musri, both of whom are believed to have been involved in a Sunni uprising in northern Lebanon almost four years ago that was directly linked by the authorities to al-Qa’ida. According to Palestinian sources, the two men were to have passed across the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain into Syria and then, through the eastern desert, into Iraq.

Over the past three weeks, Lebanese and Syrian troops have been closing down many of the illegal tracks by which smugglers cross the mountains. At least 50 of them have been blocked by mounds of earth and cement along 35 miles of the joint border, following American accusations that fighters have been infiltrating from Lebanon via Syria into Iraq. While the new blockades – and the setting up of temporary police posts – have caused problems for contraband dealers who use cars and mules, individuals can still cross the frontier on the desolate mountainside.

For years, Iraqis and Kurds fleeing Saddam’s regime have been smuggled across the border in the other direction to live secretly in the slums of Beirut; because it is host to an estimated 250,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, the government here never subscribed to refugee conventions and the Iraqis relied on the help of an unofficial refugee agency to provide them with money. Many now wish to return to Iraq. But ever since Saddam first called upon non-Iraqi Arab fighters to defend Iraq, young men have made their way from Lebanon to Baghdad. Palestinians and Syrians travelled to Iraq in the last days of the Anglo-American invasion and some were killed before the war ended.

At least 10 Palestinians from the Bourj el-Barajneh camp in Beirut travelled to Iraq to fight the Americans in March; others left from the Sabra and Chatila camp. Four of them died in the last battle for Baghdad and were feted as heroes when their bodies were returned for burial.

But the new fighters reported to be leaving Sidon are a quite different phenomenon. Some are 40-year-old veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon who see the American occupation of Iraq as unfinished business. Others, more religiously inclined, see their campaign as a holy war against both the US and Israel. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, claims that between 200 and 300 have arrived in Iraq, mostly from Lebanon and Syria. The figure is probably an exaggeration. But the Palestinians of Ein el-Helwe are still armed and trained – not just with anti-aircraft guns but with hand-held ground-to-air missiles; a source of expertise for a resistance movement which is now clawing down American helicopters over Iraq.

Courtesy Josh Kirby

Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media