Reporting from Beirut — United States officials collaborated with Lebanon's defense minister to spy on and allow Israel to potentially attack Hezbollah in the weeks that preceded a violent May 2008 military confrontation in Beirut that consolidated the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group's power in the country, leaked diplomatic cables suggest.
According to classified U.S. State Department dispatches provided to news organizations by WikiLeaks, the American military flew planes over Lebanon in 2008 to identify Hezbollah positions and provide the information to friendly elements within the Lebanese government, specifically the Ministry of Defense.
In a separate American cable, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr is described as giving American diplomats advice to pass on to Israel for any Israeli attack on Hezbollah and vowing that the Lebanese army would stay out of such a fight.
"Murr is trying to ascertain how long an offensive would be required to clean out Hizbollah," said the March 2008 cable from former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison to Washington. The Lebanese army "will move to pre-position food, money, and water with these units so they can stay on their bases when Israel comes for Hizbollah — discreetly, Murr added."
Within weeks of the conversation, Hezbollah, accusing Lebanon's pro-Western factions of collaborating with the U.S. in an attempt to destroy it, would stage a massive armed takeover of Beirut in weeklong fighting that ended only after Qatar brokered a truce that granted the Shiite militia and political organization effective veto power over major Lebanese government decisions.
The revelations come at a particularly sensitive time in Lebanon. A United Nations-backed tribunal is set to issue indictments against the alleged assassins of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a pro-Western Sunni Muslim leader. Lebanese officials have said that Hezbollah members will be accused in the killing, exacerbating simmering tensions between the country's Sunnis and Shiites. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has vowed that his members will resist any subpoenas and has pushed Lebanese officials to disavow the tribunal.
The disclosures could also complicate regional dynamics and U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. The hitherto secret spy plane missions, called "Operation Cedar Sweep," came to light in several cables dated April and May 2008.
U.S. diplomats complained in the cables that Britain wouldn't allow Americans to stage the flights from an airbase it controls in Cyprus. Britain, U.S. diplomatic officials bristled, wanted assurances that the entire Lebanese Cabinet, which included Hezbollah, and not just Murr had signed off on the missions and that captured Hezbollah members would not be tortured. They also worried that Cypriots would be outraged to learn of the missions and "could turn off the utilities at any time."
American officials dismissed the worries.
"This seems to be an unnecesary layer of bureaucracy," London-based U.S. diplomat Maura Connelly, who now serves as U.S. envoy to Lebanon, told her superiors in April 2008.
The "excessive conditions," another diplomat complained a few weeks later, "will hinder if not obstruct our cooperative counterterrorism efforts."
Murr, ostensibly a member of a politically neutral bloc, may find himself in hot water. A statement issued by his office Thursday dismissed the cables as "incomplete and inaccurate," according to the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
The cable depicts him as saying that the Lebanese army's "strategic objective was to survive a three-week war 'completely intact' and able to take over once Hizbollah's militia has been destroyed."
Though he insisted that he was not trying to pass messages to Israel, Murr, a member of Lebanon's Christian community, told the Americans that Israel should avoid conducting attacks in southern Lebanon now patrolled by thousands of international troops and not "bomb bridges and infrastructure in the Christian areas."
Murr said Israel had suffered by getting bogged down in the southern villages, but expressed confidence it would not make the same mistake twice.
"Murr offered some ideas aimed at avoiding turning the Christian population against Israel when the next war with Hizballah occurs," Sison recalled. "Murr also outlined his orders to the Lebanese Army when/if Israel invades to counter Hizballah."
Murr advised the Israelis through the U.S., according to the American diplomatic cable, to hit Hezbollah rocket locations in the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere.
The cable was first published Thursday by the left-wing Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, which was given an advance copy of the document by WikiLeaks.
A 2006 war was fought mainly between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah militants while the Lebanese army stood back. But political dynamics in Lebanon have changed since the May 2008 internal conflict. Last summer, Lebanese largely cheered their army when soldiers engaged in a deadly border skirmish with Israelis.
Lutz is a special correspondent.