After the Spaniards, who will be next to die in Lebanon?

Which United Nations contingent in southern Lebanon will be next? It is a ghoulish, terrible question after the car bomb attack that killed six Spanish soldiers of the 13,000-strong international army on Sunday evening, but one which the officers of the UN Interim Force – Unifil – are asking at their intelligence meetings. For the UN army from 30 countries under the command of four Nato generals – the Spanish contributed 1,100 soldiers – is clearly going to be attacked again. The usual expressions of determination of Western leaders who are not going to “cut and run” – so reminiscent of the Iraq war – are not going to change that.

Will it be the French, who appear to have the highest blast walls around their base? Or the Italians with their heavy armour – little protection, it would seem, after Sunday’s bomb blew one of the Spanish armoured personnel carriers into the air?

Or one of the smaller, more vulnerable contingents? Qatar has a small unit here. So does China. Would Lebanon’s bombers dare to touch the People’s Army? Even the UN’s Beirut headquarters now has a 13ft wall around it.

Either way, the UN – and thousands of Western troops – are now in the firing line in another Arab country, and the Lebanese government’s appeal not to be left to fight off its enemies alone reflects the concern of Fouad Siniora’s fractured cabinet that it may be abandoned as violence continues to grow in intensity and geographical area.

Sunday’s battles in Tripoli between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants who took over an apartment block in the city clearly proved that the brutal guerrilla fighting around the city has by no means ended. The army, without showing evidence, claimed the dead included three Saudis, two Lebanese and a Chechen. And it now transpires that a woman was among those killed by the army – apparently the wife of one of the militiamen, Bassem el-Sayyed, who is reported to hold Australian citizenship.

What is incontestable is that the innocent dead included a Lebanese police officer, Khaled Khodr, who lived in the apartment block in the Abu Samra district, along with his two daughters – one aged four and the other eight – and his father-in-law. Neighbours claimed they were used as human shields by the armed men and were then coldly executed as the army closed in on the building. The gunmen were variously said to be members of Fatah al-Islam – the same group fighting the Lebanese army in the Palestinian Nahr el-Bared refugee camp to the north – or from a group called Ahl al-Hadith whose leader, Nabil Rahim, is on the run.

In the UN, all the usual suspects are being considered for the attack on the Spanish troops; the Syrians, whose foreign minister vigorously condemned the bombing; or Hizbollah, which had been trying to protect UN personnel from al-Qa’ida-type fighters; or al-Qa’ida itself, whose supporters in Lebanon were encouraged to “resist” the United Nations army by al-Qa’ida’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. The UN has noted that Fatah al-Islam claimed only a few days ago that it was the UN which was shelling its fighters in Nahr el-Bared from the sea. The UN has German warships patrolling the coast – on the ridiculous assumption that Syria might supply Hizbollah with weapons by sea – but the Lebanese army has already shown tape of its own antiquated British-built gunboats firing at the camp.

The sensitivity of France’s current refusal to talk to Syria was emphasised when President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, Cécilia, denied to a Lebanese newspaper the contents of a French report that she had met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sister, Bouchra – whose husband, Assef Chawkat, just happens to be head of the Syrian intelligence services.
http://news.independent.co.uk/fisk/article2710605.ece

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there