Smoke of Iraq War 'Drifting Over Lebanon'
In Political and Social Life, Returned Fighters Inspire Climate of Militancy

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 12, 2006

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Abu Haritha still carries traces of the battles he fought in Iraq, 500 miles away.

On his hand is a black ring, a gift from a fellow insurgent after he was wounded in the torso in Fallujah by shrapnel. "For the memories," Abu Haritha said. Under his black hair, peppered with gray, is a scar where, he recalled, a bullet had grazed his head. Every once in a while, he watches videos lauding attacks carried out on his former battlefield and celebrates the exploits of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed last week in Iraq. At times, he regales colleagues with stories of American fear.

But for Abu Haritha, that battle is over. As he sits in this northern city, Lebanon's second-largest, he waits for what he believes will be a more expansive war beyond Iraq, a struggle he casts in the most cataclysmic of terms. In the morning, he jogs; he lifts weights for hours at night. In between, with his cellphone ringing with the Muslim call to prayer, he proselytizes in streets that are growing ever more militant, sprinkled with the black banners that proclaim jihad and occasional slogans celebrating the resistance in Iraq.

"It's an open battle, in any place, at any time," he said, his voice calm. "History has to record that there was resistance."

The war in Iraq has generated some of the most startling images in the Middle East today: a dictator's fall, elections in defiance of insurgent threats and carnage on a scale rarely witnessed. Less visibly, though, the war is building a profound legacy across the Arab world: fear and suspicion over Iraq's repercussions, a generation that casts the Bush administration's policy as an unquestioned war on Islam, and a subterranean reserve of men who, like Abu Haritha, declare that the fight against the United States in Iraq is a model for the future.

Abu Haritha's home, Tripoli, is one of the most visible manifestations of the war, a rough-and-tumble city being transformed by growing radicalism and religious fervor that may long outlast the death of Zarqawi and the U.S. presence in Iraq, now in its fourth year. Here, and elsewhere, that militancy may prove to be the inheritance of both the war and the Bush administration's professed aim of bringing democratic reform to the region.

As those currents gather force, Abu Haritha waits with a certain ease, confident of what is to come.

"Iraq is a badge of honor for every Arab and Muslim to fight the American vampire," he said.

"The Americans may enter Syria, they may enter another country, and we should prepare ourselves for them," Abu Haritha said at a cafe in a crowded alley. "We have to face them so that history won't record they entered our land without confrontation."

Moved by Anger

No one is quite sure of the number of fighters from Iraq who have returned to Tripoli, its cheap concrete buildings sprawling up hills along the Mediterranean in a region once renowned for its orange trees. Abu Haritha said hundreds went to Iraq during the U.S. invasion in 2003, when the mobilization was so casual that organizers would walk into cafes and openly recruit among jobless Lebanese Sunnis gathered there. He estimates that dozens more have gone since; 50 to 60 of them have died there, he said.

Abu Haritha went by way of Saudi Arabia, after performing the Muslim pilgrimage. He traveled first to neighboring Jordan, then across the Iraqi border with an Islamic relief group that he declined to identify. He said he was in Baghdad, Mosul, then finally Fallujah.

"We couldn't go to Palestine, we couldn't go to Kosovo, we couldn't go to Chechnya," said Abu Haritha, a name he uses as a nom de guerre. "There was no other obstacle before Bush except Iraq." He stopped, narrowing his eyes. "Write 'Bush.' Don't write 'president' before his name," he insisted.

Others at the time were similarly moved to act. Nadim Khudr, a 26-year-old barber, became so angry watching al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya television that he joined five neighbors from his hardscrabble village of Birayil, in the mountainous region of Akkar, above Tripoli. He was captured near Kirkuk, then lost both his legs when he stumbled on an unexploded cluster bomb at a U.S. prison camp in southern Iraq. Another man, who called himself Abu Jad, said he went to defend Arabs and Muslims, but he still shudders at memories of dogs eating corpses in the streets. He returned home soon after Baghdad fell.

Abu Haritha decided to stay in Iraq.

A 40-year-old father of seven, he was already a veteran, having honed his skills as a fighter in Lebanon's 15-year civil war. In Fallujah, his weapon of choice became the rocket-propelled grenade, and Abu Haritha's reputation spread in insurgent circles across the Sunni Triangle. He said other Lebanese, Syrians and Yemenis joined him. They were far outnumbered by Iraqis, but each group brought its own talents; the Yemenis, he said, shaking his head in admiration, were the toughest.

A month after arriving in Fallujah, in the summer of 2003, Abu Haritha was wounded by shrapnel from a tank round in a two-hour battle with U.S. forces. He recuperated over a month. Weeks after that, he said, he was wounded again, in a battle that lasted into the night, when a bullet furrowed across his head in the Shuhada neighborhood. Four of his colleagues were killed that day. Abu Haritha decided to head home to get treatment, a three-day journey by car and foot to the Syrian border, most of the distance covered at dark.

On his return, he said, Lebanese authorities arrested him from a hospital bed and detained him for a month and 10 days.

"It was a favor to the Americans," he said.

'Planting the Seed of Hatred'

At a cafe in the old city of Tripoli last week, Bilal Shaaban, the leader of the Islamic Unity Movement, a Sunni group, reclined on a sofa. Overhead was a television showing al-Jazeera's coverage of Zarqawi's death. Outside the cafe was a city reflecting the very real currents of militancy, generated by the Iraq war, that are reshaping political and social life.

Shaaban ticked off what he called the successes of Islamic activists like him in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and now Somalia.

"In every place, why does the Islamic current reach its goals?" he asked. "Because it expresses the people's sentiments against the Americans. It's a reaction to American policy. They are planting the seed of hatred that is going to last generations."

Through history, Lebanon, with its relatively free environment and a weak state, has often emerged as a laboratory of forces elsewhere in the Middle East, and the government has expressed concern over the influence of the most radical strains of Sunni Muslim militancy, incubated in Iraq, that have gathered strength in places such as Akkar, the Bekaa Valley and some Palestinian refugee camps. Last year, two suspects arrested in Paris said they received explosives training in northern Lebanon. In December, Zarqawi said his followers in Lebanon had carried out an attack in which nine rockets were fired into northern Israel. The next month, Lebanese authorities said they detained 13 men suspected of connections to al-Qaeda, among them Lebanese, Syrians, a Saudi, a Jordanian and a Palestinian.

Men like Shaaban, of the Islamic Unity Movement, praise the insurgency in Iraq but deny any hand in subversion. At the same time, the growing reach of their groups in the poor neighborhoods of Tripoli -- through newspapers, radio stations, mosques and social welfare, the bread and butter of Islamic groups -- has gone far in transforming a predominantly Sunni city that was traditionally home to a vibrant mix of Arab nationalism and leftist and Islamic politics.

Even longtime residents are struck by the shift in social mores over the past few years: the proliferation of women's veils and men's beards, the flourishing of religion classes and the number of youths joining groups such as Shaaban's. On balconies, interspersed among flags for residents' favorite World Cup soccer teams, are black banners with religious inscriptions usually associated with holy war. In squares of Tripoli, particularly its most religious neighborhoods such as Abu Samra, civic art is often a stark representation of God's name.

Along one street, graffiti reads: "Liberation is coming."

"We thank the Americans," said Ibrahim Salih, a founder of the Committee to Support the Iraqi Resistance, which he described as a group that disseminates information.

Near his house, along a cinder-block wall, is more graffiti. "Glory and eternity for the martyrs of Fallujah," it reads.

"No one can repress us anymore," said Salih, 52, who was educated in France. "We are a power here in Tripoli."

Across the city's political and social landscape, the fighters from Iraq remain wild cards. Unlike Abu Haritha, Khudr and Abu Jad have, by their own accounts, gone back to quiet lives. "Someone who fights needs to be able to walk and run," said Khudr, the barber whose two legs were amputated below the knee. "I can't." Sympathizers with their cause wonder what is ahead, at a time when the fighters and their followers reflect and inspire a climate here that is growing ever more militant.

"It's already a phenomenon, whether they came from Iraq or look at Iraq as a symbol," said Maan Bashour, a Lebanese activist who others said helped organize the transit of fighters from Lebanon -- a claim he denies. "We're seeing the impact in some Arab countries, and we're waiting to see the impact in other Arab countries. They could be the elements of chaos in the area."

'It Depends on America'

Grievances against the United States are nothing new in a city like Tripoli. For a generation, activists across the spectrum have bitterly criticized U.S. policy. What has shifted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the perception of that policy. The critique is no longer about perceived double standards -- of excessive support for Israel, of backing Arab dictatorships. Today, it is more generalized, universal and uncompromising. Popular sentiment here and elsewhere holds that U.S. policy amounts to a war on Islam, and in the language of Abu Haritha and others, the conflict is framed as one between the faithful and infidels, justice and injustice.

"The targeting of Iraq can be considered the first step in targeting the entire Middle East to impose a new order in the region," said Fathi Yakan, a founder of the Islamic Association and head of an umbrella group known as the Islamic Action Forces.

In a waiting room decorated with religious banners is a magazine that celebrates the defiance of the Palestinian group Hamas against attempts to isolate it. "We starve, but we don't kneel," says one passage. At the entrance is a poster marking the anniversary of Israel's assassination in 2004 of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a co-founder of Hamas. "Together we resist," it reads. On a street outside, a poster announces a forum titled, "The global campaign to resist aggression on the Muslim nation."

"Tripoli resembles Fallujah, in everything," said Yakan, 73.

Fighters like Abu Haritha and activists like Shaaban and Yakan speak in almost mythical tones about what they call the resistance in Iraq. In nearly every conversation, they make the assertion that the United States has, at this point, lost the war.

"We already consider it a success. It has already led to the failure of the American project in Iraq," Yakan said with a shrug that suggested the obvious. "I think the Americans realize that, and they are looking for an exit to wash their hands of it."

But these men's reading of the war has grown more complicated, as even the most radical voices try to make sense of the spectacular carnage there, the killing of civilians and the prospect of civil strife. Some supporters of the insurgency say they fear the conflict will unleash a civil war, the country's partition and the spillover of tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims to the rest of the Arab world. That fear is particularly pronounced in Lebanon, where Shiites make up the single largest community.

"The smoke from the fire in Iraq is drifting over Lebanon," Shaaban said darkly.

Some see an American hand in Iraq's entropy; in their analysis, the United States and Israel are fanning the flames of sectarianism as a way to further divide the Arab world and create a region even more balkanized than today's. Others see a more deep-seated hostility in U.S. actions, a scorched-earth campaign to hasten an apocalyptic battle or, in Salih's words, the "politics of chaos."

"America is with the Shiites in Iraq and against the Shiites in Lebanon, with the Sunnis in Lebanon and against the Sunnis in Iraq and Palestine. It is against the Shiites in Iran. Where is America?" Shaaban asked. "It needs Einstein to resolve it."

In a battle they cast as existential, Yakan said a call to arms is a given.

"If the people of Tripoli had a way to go to Iraq, they wouldn't delay," he said.

His assistant, Mohammed Ali Deeb, spoke up. Two of his 10 sons, Sami and Osama, had gone to Iraq in 2004. Soon after they arrived in Fallujah, Deeb said, Iraqi insurgents told them it was best to return home; their role, they said, was in Lebanon.

"I wish to God the Americans would come here so we could fight them," Deeb said. "We're waiting for them anywhere."

Smiling, Deeb turned to the austere Yakan. "Tell him, sheik," he urged.

"It depends on America," Yakan answered, "whether or not it learned its lesson in Iraq."

'No One Will Have Any Rest'

Like the two sons of Yakan's assistant, Samir Deeb went to Iraq.

"I wish I could be back," the wiry 38-year-old said.

By any account, his journey was larger than life: Before the invasion, he said, he rode a bus across the Iraqi border with 50 other Arabs, hailing from places as far-flung as Morocco and Kuwait. They recited the Koran and joined in chants. "Oh mother, my religion is calling me to jihad and sacrifice," he recalled saying. "Oh mother, don't cry if I fall."

"Those were beautiful hours," he said.

In Baghdad, Deeb and others stayed in a school. Fired with zeal, they poured out chemistry beakers, thinking they were liquor. From there, he went to Basra, fighting until that city fell to British forces. Of 300 Arab fighters, only he and eight others survived a bombing of their base. With a Lebanese friend, he then walked and hitchhiked for more than a week across southern Iraq, along the Tigris, finally arriving in Baghdad. He said he went north, joining other Arab fighters in Anbar province in western Iraq.

After a mission, he said, he lost his guide. Abandoned, he decided to return to Lebanon, walking to the Syrian border. Back home in Tripoli, he arrived to find black banners in the street declaring he had died in Iraq. He tore them down with his own hands.

Deeb now bides his time in Tripoli, jobless and resentful. On his cellphone, he plays anthems celebrating the insurgency.

"We are the people of Fallujah," one song went. "Come to see how the people of Fallujah fight."

"It's an open battle," he said. "As long as the Americans are in the Middle East, no one will have any rest."

Deeb lit another cigarette. He folded his arms across his chest, his calloused hands bearing the scars of shrapnel wounds suffered in the Lebanese civil war.

"If there's an opportunity, I will return," he said. "This time, I won't come back without victory or martyrdom."

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