Doomed to repeat historic mistakes in Iraq

April 11, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

In last week's column, I wrote that in his provocative book Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke made a mistake when he said 278 Marines died in a suicide truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

The number was 243, I wrote. Wrong! The number was 241.

And I still can't get Lebanon off my mind. Too much of what was happening in Iraq last week was reminiscent of Israel's experience in Lebanon two decades ago - an experience which drew in the United States, with fatal consequences.

The similarities are astonishing and frightening: A war to get one guy, enraged Shiite populations, leaders chosen by the invaders and fatal misconceptions about the place that's being invaded. And now, kidnapping.

Lebanon, like Iraq before the U.S. invasion, had a ruling elite. In Iraq, it was Sunnis. In Lebanon, it was the Christian Maronites and the Sunnis. Just as the U.S. invasion a year ago went after one man and his regime, Saddam Hussein; the Israeli invasion went after Yasser Arafat, whose Palestine Liberation Organization regime had great power in Lebanon. And Lebanon had a large, underrepresented and abused Shiite population.

Lebanon's Shiites, like Iraq's, were concentrated in the south. Their iconic figure was also named Sadr - Imam Musa Sadr, a cleric who had been kidnapped and presumably murdered during a visit to Libya in 1978. In 1999, Hussein's regime assassinated Shiite Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, an iconic figure for the Shiite militants now led by his son, Muqtada.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, its army came up from the Shiite south, just as the U.S. forces invaded Iraq via its Shiite south.

The Shiites of south Lebanon actually did shower the invading Israelis with flowers and rice, as the architects of the U.S. invasion of Iraq had expected the Shiites of southern Iraq would do for them.

The Shiites of south Lebanon were happy the Israelis were after the Palestinians. The PLO had been making their lives miserable, and their part of the country was being devastated by Israeli bombing raids conducted in retaliation for Palestinian attacks into Israel.

The Israelis proceeded to Beirut and, like the United States in Iraq, installed a puppet leader - Bashir Gemayel, a Christian Phalangist. While Israeli tanks surrounded the building where the Lebanese Parliament was meeting, the Lebanese politicians who dared attend elected Gemayel. Several of those politicians had their homes blown up afterward.

Say this for Gemayel: Unlike the Iraqis the United States has installed in Baghdad, he had charisma and he had a following. Moreover, because Lebanon's "national pact," called for a Maronite Christian president, he qualified. But that was the extent of it. He was a murderer in a land of murderers. Shortly after his election he was assassinated.

By that time, Yasser Arafat and his fighters had been evacuated from Beirut under an arrangement that had placed a multinational force of Americans, French and Italians in Beirut to guarantee the safety of the Palestinians. Arafat had expressed concerns that after he and his men were gone, the Christians would go after the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who remained unprotected in Lebanon.

Most people thought that Gemayel's assassination had been orchestrated by the Syrians. But his enraged Phalangist followers went after the Palestinians. In September 1982, Christian militiamen entered Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps - with the Israeli army standing nearby - they systematically slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian men, women and children.

The U.S. Marines, part of whose mission had been to protect the Palestinians from just such an event, returned to Lebanon, drawing the United States into the lethal labyrinth of Lebanon's internecine strife.

The Americans quickly became identified as supporters of Lebanon's historic rulers, the Christians and the Sunnis of Beirut. They were also identified as allies of Israel and threw a lot of energy into trying to compel the Lebanese to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The U.S. Navy's Sixth fleet lay menacingly just off Beirut, occasionally lobbing shells into the Lebanese mountains. The state of affairs would prove disastrous.

The longer the Americans and the Israelis stayed in Lebanon, seeming to take sides, the more radicalized the Shiite population became. The affection the Shiites of the South had shown for the invading Israelis had long ago vanished. The influence of the relatively moderate, but enormously corrupt Shiite Amal movement and its militia, was replaced by new Islamic radical groups named Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. They brought with them a rather novel means of making war: suicide bombing.

In April 1983, a car bomb exploded outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 55 people inside. Islamic radicals set off that bomb in a plan supported by Iran. Six months later, a suicide bomber exploded his truck at the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans.

The Americans pulled out of Lebanon shortly afterward, leaving it to its own bloody devices. It took about 15 years for the Israelis to leave Lebanon. Hezbollah drove them out.

There are lessons to be learned from that hideous experience. Be careful where you go and who you take in as your friends. And, enemies of each other become friends if they have a common enemy. But the men and women who got us into Iraq did not learn those lessons.

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