- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2007

BEIRUT — Lebanon and Syria exchanged charges yesterday, with each blaming the other for an outbreak of fighting that has killed dozens of people in and around a Palestinian refugee camp near the northern city of Tripoli.

But both agreed that the two-day gunbattle, sparked by an attempt to arrest a group of bank-robbery suspects, was really about efforts to convene a U.N. tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The fighting pits the Lebanese army against a Palestinian splinter group called Fatah Islam, which has been publicly linked to Osama bin Laden’s global terrorist network, al Qaeda.

But Lebanon’s national police commander, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, said yesterday that the group was little more than a front created by the Syrian government to stir up trouble in Lebanon.

“Perhaps there are some deluded people among them, but they are not al Qaeda,” Gen. Rifi said. “This is imitation al Qaeda, a ‘Made in Syria’ one.”

Muhammad Shatah, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, said Syria was sowing discord in Lebanon in hopes of derailing the tribunal, which is widely expected to implicate senior Syrian officials in the Hariri killing.

Fatah Islam is led by Shaker Youssef al-Absi, a Palestinian who came to Lebanon after winning early release from a Syrian prison last year. It is widely thought among Lebanese government members that al-Absi is a Syrian agent who was sent to Lebanon to stir up trouble.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem flatly rejected those charges, saying his government had been working through Interpol and in other ways to help break up the group. And the nation’s ambassador to the United Nations hinted at a Lebanese plot to build support for the Hariri tribunal.

“Every time there is a meeting in the Security Council to deal with the Lebanese crisis, one or two days before the council meets, there is some kind of trouble, either assassinations, or explosions or attempts to assassinate somebody,” Bashar Jaafari told reporters.

“This is not a coincidence. … Some people are trying to influence the Security Council and to make pressure on the council so they can go ahead with the adoption of the draft resolution on the tribunal,” he said.

Kassem Kassir, a reporter for the pro-government newspaper al Mustaqbal who has interviewed members of Fatah Islam, said the truth is probably more complicated.

The group is financed and supported less by Syria than by Salafist groups in Iraq, Jordan and the Persian Gulf, he said. Salafists are Sunni fundamentalists who seek a return to Islam’s roots and are ideologically in tune with al Qaeda.

Al-Absi was once a member of the main Palestinian faction, Fatah, founded by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died in 2004. Al-Absi later joined Fatah al-Intifada, a front group set up by Syria to be used against Israel. That group failed to win popular support among the Palestinians, and al-Absi went out on his own last year by forming Fatah Islam.

The move makes sense, Mr. Kassir said, because al-Absi is a Jordanian of Palestinian descent with ties to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed last year. But he acknowledged that Fatah Islam appears to be very well-armed, presumably with weapons smuggled into Lebanon from Syria.

Syria’s most important ally in Lebanon is Hezbollah, but the militant group is constrained by its own carefully nurtured image as a Lebanese resistance group with members in parliament, said Reva Bhalla, director of geopolitical analysis at Stratfor, a Houston-based security firm.

She said Hezbollah is reluctant to turn its guns on the government, given that it seeks to be seen as a legitimate part of the Lebanese political process. Groups such as Fatah Islam have more flexibility.

“Syria is funneling weapons and men to them, keeping them [in Lebanon] and they’re a bargaining tactic against the United States” at a time when Washington is preparing for bilateral talks with Iran, she said.

Significantly, she added, Iran has signaled that it doesn’t oppose the Hariri tribunal, which is making Syria fearful of being betrayed by its main ally.

“Syria is watching very closely that it doesn’t get screwed in any deal,” and any support it may be giving to groups such as Fatah Islam is to remind the United States that it has chips it can still play, she said.

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