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War is over, but no letup in the battle

Lebanon's army routed Islamic fighters months ago, but the country is beset by violence and political deadlock.

January 23, 2008|Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

AMIOUN, LEBANON — The young man had been through a miserable few years. He had been rejected by the army and failed to finish his studies. Security officials kept summoning him for talks.

At 25, he left his parents' home in the city, telling them he wanted to be a shepherd. They heard nothing more from him until newspapers reported that he was wanted in Germany for involvement in a plot to bomb a pair of trains.

But here was Saddam Hajdib in a sleepy mountain town above the olive groves along the rocky Mediterranean coast, outside a tiny bank branch nestled amid shops selling knickknacks and cheap rugs.

According to police, he and two accomplices put stockings over their heads and burst in. A surveillance tape shows two of them wielding handguns. One of them is seen carefully taking money out of the safe.

Within hours, security officials had cornered the three at an apartment complex in nearby Tripoli, Hajdib's hometown. Lebanese security officials say Hajdib and 10 others were killed in a four-hour gun battle.

But the fighting was far from over. The robbery sparked a 3 1/2 -month war that led to the demise of an Al Qaeda franchise seeking to turn a weak state into a new base of operations, as other Al Qaeda-related organizations have in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Pakistan.

Operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp, the militants planned attacks to further destabilize the country, and to target United Nations forces keeping the peace along the Israeli border, Lebanese officials said.

But in this case, the state fought back -- with tremendous casualties. The battle at the Nahr el Bared refugee camp left hundreds of soldiers, militants and civilians dead and more than 40,000 people homeless.

Months after last summer's fighting, Lebanon remains beset by assassinations and mired in political deadlock. Authorities believe Al Qaeda is continuing to try to make inroads. On Dec. 18, authorities charged 31 Lebanese, Syrians and a Saudi with plotting to attack a church and other religious sites. Officials continue to investigate whether Al Qaeda may have been responsible for the Dec. 12 assassination of Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, the military commander who oversaw the summer war.

The leader of the group, a charismatic former fighter pilot named Shaker Abssi, managed to escape.

"This was only the beginning," said an audio recording posted Jan. 7 on an Internet site frequently used by Islamic militants. The recording was attributed to Abssi, but not verified.

"By God, you will not live safely," it said. "The mill of war has started to grind . . . between the infidels and the believers."

Even so, officials said the war effort was worth it.

"The country would have been in great chaos and the price we would have paid would have been much higher," said Ashraf Rifi, chief of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces.

Trouble stirs

The militants were few at first, arriving at the camp as members of a long-established Palestinian group called Fatah al Intifada.

They were among many political groups within the community of 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Lebanon since the 1948 founding of Israel.

In November 2006, the group dropped its Palestinian nationalist agenda and proclaimed itself Fatah al Islam, or Islamic Victory, and declared it had embraced Islam.

The militants offered use of their Internet connection to lure youngsters to their offices. They got into gunfights with other Palestinian political groups. They began attracting like-minded Lebanese and others from the wider Muslim world to the camp.

The militants fed off the malaise of the camp, as well as the radicalization of Sunni Arab youths after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Security officials said more than a few of those who arrived were veterans of the Iraq insurgency.

As a youth, Hajdib was a talented soccer player. By the time he was in his early 20s, he had grown a bushy beard and was spending time with Islamic radicals in the camp. He was accused by German authorities of being in on a plot by his brother and another Lebanese radical to set off suitcase bombs on two trains departing from Cologne in 2006.

To Lebanon's Western-backed government, the group was a tool used by Syria to sow chaos in the country. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has asserted that it had direct links to senior Syrian intelligence officers, although no Lebanese officials involved in the investigation could confirm that. Fatah al Islam was led by Abssi, a Palestinian who flew MIGs for the Libyan air force and was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for involvement in the 2002 killing of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. Jordanian officials accused Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, of financing that attack.

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