Lebanese militants vow to take battle outside camp

It was a familiar routine. Just as the Lebanese army boasted of another “victory” amid the wreckage of the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian camp – its al-Qa’ida-style rebels still holding out against the state authority – one of the Islamists’ spokesmen announced in an audiotape that some of the gunmen had escaped and were planning a “black day” for the government.

This is grim news indeed for a country facing a presidential election crisis and whose administration is being militarily supported by the United States as part of its “war on terror”.

The tape emerged only hours after the US said it had placed Fatah al-Islam on its now 43-strong list of “terrorist” organisations which would have their funds frozen in the US and would not be permitted to enter America. Fighting to the death amid the ruins of the camp, it is highly doubtful that the gunmen there have bank accounts on Wall Street or that any have applied for visas to the US. But that’s the way the “war on terror” works. Each side ratchets up the odds and kills more human beings.

A symbol of just how serious the situation has become in Lebanon lies in the statistics. Of the 200 or so people who have died since the camp battle broke out in May, 136 were Lebanese soldiers. That’s only 32 short of the entire British Army death toll in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

The siege has now put one of Lebanon’s major power stations out of action after the insurgents fired rockets at it. The result is widespread power cuts.

The constitutional crisis is almost as grave. The pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, insists he will not sanction presidential elections next month on the grounds that the Fouad Siniora government contains no Shias (they walked out last year) and thus he must hand power to the army. And as every Lebanese knows, giving power to the army is a long tradition in Middle East dictatorships.

There is a growing and widespread belief that General Michel Suleiman, the head of the Lebanese army, may be asked to lead his country. General Suleiman, a Christian Maronite who has shown considerable tact in his handling of the army’s battles. In a part of the world where generals like giving orders, he miraculously announced two months ago that the army would remain united while the people of Lebanon had to make their own decisions. He is popular in a country that lives on the side of a very deep chasm. In a series of ferocious street riots last January, his soldiers managed to prevent widespread civil conflict without killing a single one of their own citizens.

The head of the Lebanese army has to be a Maronite under the secular system of government, but the Maronites have proved themselves hopelessly divided. Their pro-Syrian party is led by another army officer, the former general Michel Aoun, who condemned Hizbollah as “terrorists” when he thought he was president in 1989, but who is now allied to the “Party of God” in the hope of becoming president himself.

It is Lebanon’s fate to make its politics almost as obscure to itself as to foreigners, but the word in Beirut is that General Suleiman has surprisingly good contacts in Damascus – whose acolytes he is supposedly fighting – and is also backed by the US. Mr Lahoud himself is a former army commander. Lebanon may need plenty of the latter to fight Fatah el-Islam.

In the audiotape, Abu Jandel al-Dimashqi of the Tawhid and Jihad Struggle in Syria movement announced the death in battle of the deputy leader of the group in the camp, Abu Hereira, adding: “Let the government of the traitor Siniora know some of Fatah el-Islam’s heroes have left the camp and are among you. Wait for a black day.”

He condemned the refusal of the fighter’s fellow villagers to bury him in his birthplace of Mishmish. But three soldiers from the village have been killed since May, and graveyards have to be carefully selected.

The tape makes for uncomfortable listening. George Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy of France – who is visiting him – added their own petrol to the fire at the weekend, announcing there must be no “unconstitutional acts” in Lebanon. Election day is 25 September. Write it into your diary.

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