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On the morning of May 22, 2007, CNN International (not to be confused with the network’s often horrid domestic service), carried what could only be called a sensational report. While Lebanese Army forces were bombarding the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli, the station interviewed veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, who sketched a quite different background to the fighting than that being offered by most of the major media. It seems that Fatah al-Islam, the group that touched off the conflict, is not primarily a Palestinian organization. Its existence has been known for some time and it has been able to function freely because officials of Lebanon minority government welcomed it as a weapon against the popular Lebanese group, Hezbollah.

After viewing the Hersh interview, I phoned a friend to tell him about it, and his response was, “Well, if the major papers pick up this report it could really become interesting.”

They didn’t.

The information in the Hersh interview was cited frequently on the internet and in foreign media. A few days after the CNN International appearance, Hearst was interviewed on the radio show Democracy Now. But the major media? Not a mumbling word.

The New York Times totally ignored the Hersh revelations - which actually were not new but had been contained in a February article in the New Yorker. In it, he writes that under the sponsorship of Vice-President Dick Cheney, an arrangement was worked out to create conflict between militant Sunni groups and Shiite Hezbollah.

Actually, the Times editors didn’t need Hersh to give an accurate picture of Fatah al-Islam. On Mar. 16, the paper ran a report by four of its own reporters about the group, which included an interview with its leader Shaker al-Absi. In it, he is described as “a fugitive Palestinian” who “has set up operations in a refugee camp, here, where he trains fighters and spreads the ideology of Al Qaeda.”

Now get this: a man who had been sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for the murder of a U.S. diplomat, Laurence Foley, and has arrest warrants out for him in three countries, is able to set up shop in Tripoli with a band of 150 fighters “and an arsenal of explosives, rockets and even an antiaircraft gun”? Not only that, intelligence officials in Beirut told the Times reporters “he has also exploited another source of manpower: they estimate he has 50 militants from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries fresh from fighting with the insurgency in Iraq.”

Where was the CIA?

The Times interviewed Abssi inside the Nahr al Bared refugee camp where he “seems to be building his operation with little interference….despite being on terrorism watch lists around the world, he has set himself up in a Palestinian refugee camp where, because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government,” The Times reported. And the CIA? And, what Lebanese politics? Surely if, as Lebanese government officials and the major U.S. media continue to insist, he is an agent of neighboring Syria, who would be protecting him?

“And what is the laugh riot and the reason I’m actually talking to you guys about this - I usually don’t like to do interviews unless I have a story in The New Yorker - the reason I’m talking about it is because the American government keeps on putting out this story that Syria is behind the Fatah group, which is just beyond belief,” Hersh told Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now.  “There’s no way - it may be possible, but the chances of it are very slight, simply because Syria is a very big supporter, obviously, of [Hezbollah leader] Nasrallah, and [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad has told me that he’s in awe of Nasrallah, that he worships at his feet and has great respect for him. The idea that the Syrians would be sponsoring Sunni jihadist groups whose sole mission are to kill the apostates - that is, anybody who doesn’t support their view, the Wahhabi or Salafist view of Sunni religion - that includes the Shia - anybody who doesn’t believe - support these guys’ religions are apostates and are killable, that’s basically one of the crazy aspects of all this, and it’s just inconceivable. Nothing can be ruled out, but that doesn’t make much of a case, and I noticed that in the papers today there’s fewer and fewer references to this. The newspapers in America are beginning to wise up, that this can’t be - this isn’t very logical. The White House is putting it out hot and heavy as part of the anti-Syria campaign, but it’s not flying, because it doesn’t make sense. So there we are. It’s another mess.”

By the time the fighting around the Nahr al-Bared camp was underway, the information in the paper’s March report had apparently vanished into thin air, never to be cited. In fact, Lebanon itself apparently disappeared; as the fighting continued, days went by with no reports from there at all. What accounts for the Times’ – and all the other big Times, and Posts and Globes – not mentioning the Hersh report? I have no idea. It could be that they just stuck their finger in the air and sensed that the wind was blowing strongly in the direction of pinning the whole thing on Syria – even in the absence of any evidence. However, by shutting out the information on Fatah al-Islam’s origins and possible intentions, the media wittingly or unwittingly served to cover-up the nature of current Bush administration maneuvering in the Middle East, illustrated by Vice-President Cheney's recent foray into the region.

“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East,” wrote Hersh in The New Yorker.  “In Lebanon, the Administration has cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

“The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney,” wrote Hersh.

“American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south,” wrote Hersh. “These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.”

“The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous,” Hersh says he was told by Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence agent now with the Conflicts Forum think tank in Beirut. Hersh writes, “Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. ‘I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests - presumably to take on Hezbollah,’ Crooke said.”

Hersh described Lebanese authorities as quite candid about what was going on, one “senior official” saying, “We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here.” he said.

Let’s see; have I got this right? The Bush Administration colludes with its client government in Ethiopia, invades and bombs Somalia on the pretext of hunting down Al Qaeda types while at the same time, under the watchful eye of the Beirut Embassy and CIA station, and with Saudi money, Al Qaeda types are setting up bases in Lebanon and battling the Lebanese Army. Maybe the editors of the big business media are just too confused by all this.

As one watches the shelling of Nahr al-Bared it’s hard to imagine that the heavy bombardment is intended solely to take out a couple hundred poorly armed fighters. Whatever the intent, the effect has been to wreck great devastation on the impoverished community and to turn tens of thousands of Palestinians into refugees once more. In response, there have been demonstrations at many of the 12 refugee camps across the country.

 “If the random shelling does not stop... there will be uprisings in all the camps in Lebanon," Sultan Abul Aynayn, the head of the Palestinian group Fatah in Lebanon, told the AFP news agency.  "No Palestinian or Palestinian faction in Lebanon will accept seeing the Palestinian people slaughtered in a collective punishment, as is happening in Nahr al-Bared."

"They are trying to drag the Palestinians into the war," one refugee told the news service Aljazeera. "They use the word Fatah, because it is related to Palestinians and Islam because there is a campaign around the world against Islam." Another said: "We are against what Fatah al-Islam is doing, but at the same time there are civilians being hurt; there are civilians being killed."

“The dangers of a conflagration that could spread across the country are serious,” Professor Charles Harb of American University of Beirut wrote in the Guardian (UK) May 24. “The US once nurtured the mujahideen in Afghanistan, only to pay the price much later. In the dangerous game of sectarian conflict, everyone stands to lose.”

BC Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Click here to contact Mr. Bloice.


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June 7, 2007
Issue 232

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