Friday, September 21, 2012
The US government has never attempted to hide its “peaceful” efforts to neutralize Hezbollah in Lebanon. There was more or less an official declaration circulated by the US embassy in Beirut through its many channels, prompting devotees and volunteers from all over the country to answer its call to action.
The embassy in Awkar, North of Beirut often welcomed political, religious, security and media figures, offering services of various kinds, and showcasing their talents in snitching and spying on their countrymen.
The Lebanese who came to pledge allegiance were so numerous that the embassy had to “sift through them” to select those who could be most useful to them, particularly by gauging their hostility towards Hezbollah.
One scheme, overtly pursued by the US government since 2006, was to demonize Hezbollah among Lebanese youths, and create alternative frameworks to replace it.
Jeffrey Feltman, current UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and former US ambassador to Lebanon, spoke explicitly of this during a congressional hearing, when he stated that Washington, “through USAID and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), [had] contributed more than $500 million to this effort since 2006.”
MEPI is a very lucrative US project over which many informants salivate. One of the prominent features of MEPI, according to cables leaked and published by WikiLeaks, is to deal a blow to Hezbollah.
This assault would be carried out by Lebanese Shia figures who would tarnish Hezbollah’s image and create political alternatives to the resistance movement within the Shia community.
It did not take long for the US embassy to find people willing to do their bidding. Several Shia clerics and politicians went on to found a group that they dubbed the Independent Shias. They soon believed their own delusions, began their work, and cashed in on it.
Selling themselves as “independents” and “moderates,” these Shia “civil society activists,” clerics and politicians then shuttled back and forth between Washington and Awkar, to receive their instructions before they were deployed to the South, the Bekaa and Beirut to carry out them out.
Awkar has kept a watchful eye on their activities, monitoring their progress on the ground, and receiving reports from them on an almost daily basis. These reports contain items from tips on Hezbollah’s movements and rocket arsenal, to tip-offs on what children are saying in the streets of Dahiyeh – Beirut’s southern suburb and Hezbollah’s stronghold.
Sometimes, as the leaked cables demonstrate, even the US diplomats were surprised by the enthusiasm, courage and initiative shown by some informers. From 2006 to 2010, these individuals and others provided the US embassy with detailed information and analyses on every arcane issue the embassy had inquired about – and sometimes even without it asking.
This select series of cables highlight the US plan and identifies some of the Lebanese Shia proxies used to implement it, including politicians, civil society activists and clerics.
Loukman Slim runs an NGO in the heart of Haret Hreik in Beirut’s southern suburbs. The area is also considered a strong hold of Hezbollah. Slim was hawkish in his views of the resistance movement seeing it as controlled by Iran and Syria.
“There was perceptible, if slight, disagreement among these moderate Shia concerning the extent of the danger Hizballah poses. Whereas some of the guests (Beydoun, Husseini) see Hizballah as an organization that can be integrated into Lebanon, others (Ambassador Khalil, Loukman Slim) view it as a force controlled by Iran and Syria that is intent only on dominating Lebanon.”
Slim surprised his embassy hosts by openly stating interest in building relations with Israel.
Slim also surprised us by expressing a desire to reach out to not only like-minded Syrian citizens, but also Israelis. "There is much that we will disagree on, but I am convinced that there is plenty of common ground that can be built upon." Slim told us he had met with a former Netanyahu advisor while in Washington and agreed to begin a dialogue with this individual. For the Israeli proposal, Slim is keen to follow up on discussions with the Aspen Institute, which offered to develop the concept operationally.
Other cables relating to Slim: [09BEIRUT417],[09BEIRUT1109],[08BEIRUT786],[08BEIRUT919],[08BEIRUT931], [08BEIRUT1326],[09BEIRUT234],[08BEIRUT750]
The former mufti of Tyre, Sayyid Ali al-Amin, was promoted by March 14 forces as the religious alternative to pro-resistance clerics. When meeting with US embassy officials, Amin was always pointing out how they needed to be tougher with Hezbollah.
"UNIFIL troops are now merely tourists in Lebanon," Amin said. He reported that he spoke to a Belgian UNIFIL contingent four months ago about the visible fiber optic network (Ref A) Hizballah has been constructing throughout the country. The Belgian response was reportedly that they had not seen anything. Amin said that the UN is beholden to Hizballah, adding that even UNIFIL Commander Claudio Graziano's interpreter is from Hizballah. Citing further examples, he mentioned that Hizballah provides the UN with lists of people to hire, and also that the UN works through municipalities, which are controlled by Hizballah in its civic action program. "Hizballah knows even what the UNIFIL troops eat!" he exclaimed.
Because there are many “ineffective, disparate efforts,” Amin envisions a consolidated group based upon a shared religious ideology. He noted the timing is important because prior to the July 2006 war, it was not possible for a group such as the proposed "Shia League" to take a position against Hizballah, but since then, it is more likely. Amin noted that he would need resources for the center because “you cannot confront Hizballah by prayers alone.” He also mentioned that he had proposed the creation and funding of a satellite television network highlighting moderate Shia views.
As the son-in-law of one of the most prominent Lebanese clerics, Sheikh Ahmad Taleb’s main task when meeting US embassy officials was to distance himself from whom he saw as a hurdle on his quest to get to the US – his father-in-law Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.
The progressive sounding views that Sheikh Taleb expressed were helped by a visit to Los Angeles. He was complimentary of the U.S. and its tolerance of differences in faiths. Sheikh Taleb repeated an often-heard phrase here that no Islamic country protects religion as well as America does. Sheikh Taleb had no illusions about the present state of Shia politics. As the son-in-law of Fadlallah, one of the community's more revered, living thinkers, he has to be loyal to the religious ideals of his community as described by the establishment represented by his father-in-law. However, Sheikh Taleb has tried to steer clear of the political system and goals that govern Hizballah.
The columnist for the Arabic language daily al-Balad was a trusted source of information for the US ambassador, and Ali al-Amin was proud of that.
Al Amine told us that he was proud to be one of the seven NGO implementers for the MEPI-funded "Citizen Lebanon" project, administered by the National Democratic Institute. It has just launched and is part of a multi-million dollar, three-year program to promote "a sense of citizenship" throughout Lebanon. Al Amine was pleased that the multi-year format allows for long-term work. "It will take time for the ruling sectarian divisions to fade."
Ahmad al-Assaad: Failure to Impress
The son of a former speaker of parliament, Ahmad al-Assaad talked a big game, but US embassy staffers saw him as an unimpressive nag.
We have doubts about al-Assad's influence. Most other anti-Hizballah Shia activists, journalists, and academics we meet say that he has a huge ego and refuses to cooperate or collaborate with any of his anti-Hizballah co-religionists unless he gets to preside over political planning and activities. Although some still invite him to independent Shia roundtables to discuss ways to loosen Hizballah and Amal's grip on the sociopolitical sentiments of the Shia masses, others simply ignore him. Assad is considered autocratic, perhaps a consequence of coming from a feudal landowning family in the south.
In the last meeting of the day with independent Shia figures, the Charge and Cohen met with Ahmad al-Assad, anti-Hizballah Shia leader and head of the Lebanese Options Group (LOG). Asad requested USG funding to hold a conference in Beirut with Shia from the region. Assad described the conference to be a launching pad for LOG's "bigger plan" (an ambitious catalogue of ideas passed to us during an earlier meeting which included a very expensive and not-well-thought out proposal to put 300 clerics on LOG's payroll). Assad dismissed the idea of a Shia League grouping independent Shia as "unrealistic," insisting that only his own LOG represented the independent Shia reality. (Note. Of the day's four meetings with independent Shia activists, Assad was clearly the least impressive and most self-centered. End Note.)
Dureid Yaghi: In Baalbeck We Kill
Dureid Yaghi, a member of Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, was the embassy’s source of information on Hezbollah in Baalbeck. Yaghi bragged how his cousin had actually killed a member of his rivals.
Yaghi, whose home in Baalbeck was firebombed by Hizballah during the May 2008 clashes, said that Hizballah continues to harass him and his family members. He relayed that when Hizballah members scuffled with his cousin in April, his cousin shot and killed a Hizballah instigator (who, coincidentally according to Yaghi, was one of the individuals firebombing Yaghi's house last May, the cousin in now in hiding). "Baalbeck is different from southern Lebanon," Yaghi mused as he tucked his hand in his waistband, "In Baalbeck, we kill Hizballah!"
The ex-member of the Amal Movement, Mohammad Baydoun, had his former boss, speaker of the house Nabih Berri, in sight whenever he met with US embassy staff.
Entirely on his own initiative (and speaking the day before the President's June 29 visa ban proclamation against individuals threatening Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy), Baydoun urged the US to take action targeting the financial assets of those working against the current government. A ban against individuals is not enough, he argued; we need to hit them where it hurts -- in their pocketbooks.
March 14 former minister Ibrahim Shamseddine has the lineage to prove he is a genuine Shia, but the son of the former head of the Higher Islamic Shia Council wants the embassy to know that he is a friend.
Describing himself as a "true fundamentalist Shia", in the sense that he adheres to Shiite religious values, Shamseddine explained that although he sports a beard, he is not a terrorist, and although he wears a necktie, he is not an American agent. He called himself a friend of the U.S., despite the "harsh and difficult friendship."
Shameseddine stressed that the government's statement to parliament must mention something about Hizballah's arms. The opposition was exhibiting the same "trend" of making high demands, insisting on using the word "resistance," he said, although it was not yet clear whether this was simple a negotiating technique or a final position.
In addition to this sample of US embassy frequenters there were many others like Mohammad Ali al-Hajj [08BEIRUT665, 09BEIRUT234], the religious face of Hayya Bina; former MP Salah al-Harake [06BEIRUT336, 06BEIRUT634, 09BEIRUT234]; son of another former house speaker Ali Sabri Hamade [06BEIRUT336]; Sheikh Maarouf Rahal [08BEIRUT560]; and businessman Abdallah Bitar [08BEIRUT786]. But not all regular embassy visitors were always cooperative. Riad al-Assaad [06BEIRUT634], who ran against Hezbollah in the 2005 parliamentary elections, was angry at the US government support for Israel during the 2006 war and he made that clear to the embassy staffers.
On July 26, the Embassy's contacts in the Shia community reported continued strong support for Hizballah, and fury at the USG for its support for Israel. Riad al-Asad, a moderate Shia politician who had run against the Amal-Hizballah alliance in the 2005 parliamentary elections, reacted angrily to polstaff's call. His colorful reply, after uncharacteristic profanities, was, "Everyone is for Hizballah now!"
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!