World: Notebook: The `Cobra' strikes at the heart of his master;

The Lebanese thought their Civil War was history, but a new book full of horror and scandal has brought it vividly to life

SEX, TORTURE, assassination, corruption, mass murder, adultery and spies. No wonder the Cobra's book has been censored in Beirut. Even photocopying the ill-written text of From Israel to Damascus is now a crime in Lebanon. "Have you seen the list?" an old friend asked me on the telephone last week. "Did he really have all those women?"

For "he", read Elie Hobeika, former minister for hydraulic resources in Lebanon's government, former Christian militia leader and - so Israel claimed within hours of the killings - the leader of the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in 1982. The "Cobra" was the nom de guerre of Mr Hobeika's former bodyguard, Robert Hatem, a man who claims to know the whole story of his master's exotic career - from Israeli-trained gunman to Syrian protege and wealthy minister.

His book - published by the odd-sounding (and hitherto unheard of) Pride International Publications - contains many a snapshot of Mr Hobeika and Mr Hatem together in the Lebanese civil war. He describes how they were trained with other Lebanese by Israeli army officers, how he - Mr Hatem - personally tortured Lebanese businessmen for money. He even details the terrible end of four Iranians who were kidnapped in 1982 and whose release was an Iranian condition for freeing Western hostages in Beirut.

But Mr Hobeika has already struck back. According to him, the "Cobra" is an illiterate ex-drug addict whom he fired in 1985, and his book an Israeli plot. It was written, he told the Arabic language daily Sharq al-Awsat, by "an American journalist of Jewish origin who had previously played a role in the Lebanese war" - an apparent reference to the American writer who told of her affair with the former militiaman and doomed president- elect Bashir Gemayel. As for the stories of mistresses galore, Mr Hobeika says, these constitute "the most dangerous part of the book because it intrudes upon the dignities of families and people through unsubstantiated tales of relationships I had with a number of Lebanese ladies".

Mr Hatem, currently believed to be in Paris, lives up to his name of Cobra when he announces that "I have made up my mind not to mention all [the women] by name, because they are ... victims" - and then treacherously proceeds to name them. Leading Lebanese families have been outraged by the publishing of such a list. A female journalist who appears in Hatem's pages - one of the finest writers in the Lebanese press - has lodged a libel case against Mr Hatem in the Lebanese courts, demanding the "destruction" of the book and the arrest and punishment of its author.

But however scandalous Mr Hatem's allegations, his description of civil- war Lebanon is truly terrifying. For the first time, he tells of the kidnapping of the three Iranian diplomats - Mohsen Moussawi, Ahmed Kussliane and Kazem Anuam - and their driver, Taki Rastakar, in 1982. Most chilling of all is his account of two of their torturers, codenamed "Abu Tony" and "Al Abouna".

" `Abu Tony' was a tough, cruel and ruthless fellow in charge of prisoners," writes the "Cobra". "He was the terrifying warden. He interrogated them and applied his most sophisticated torture techniques on them ... `Al Abouna' in his spare time participated in the torture sessions." All four Iranians died under torture and were buried with dozens of other murder victims in ditches close to the port in east Beirut. "They were buried at the foot of eucalyptus trees and covered with limestone to speed up the decomposition of the cadavers."

Years later, Mr Hatem admits to torturing the millionaire Lebanese banker Roger Tamraz - now a US citizen, but still wanted by Lebanon for alleged fraud - in the town of Zahle. "He was deprived of food and water, [I] physically tortured him with electric waves and ice cold water. He brushed death twice as I was dealing with him. I was in full admiration for his physical resistance despite his age." According to the author, Tamraz, "crushed by pain", eventually paid $5m in cash for his release.

Most awful of all is Mr Hatem's claim that he "practised euthanasia" on Mr Hobeika's desperately sick baby daughter Sabine at his master's heartbroken request. According to Sharq al-Awsat, Mr Hobeika broke into tears when asked about this section of Mr Hatem's book. "I am a father," he said. "Would it be feasible that a father would kill his sick daughter? Even the jackal takes pity on its offspring, let alone humans. These claims are offensive and improper."

Mr Hatem says he turned down an offer of $800,000 (pounds 500,000) to keep quiet, but Mr Hobeika - "I do not submit to or participate in extortion," he says - has other suspicions. He claims that Israel is behind the book - and points to an intriguing paragraph in which Mr Hatem chooses to pay his "deepest respects to [Israeli] General Ariel Sharon, that great man who gave the Christians of Lebanon what no-one in the world has ever given - LIBERTY AND DIGNITY. Also to the leaders of the Likoud [sic] party, and to the late Menachem Begin who stood next to us in our most critical moments during the war ..."

Now these are indeed very strange words to come from Mr Hatem. General Sharon, after all, is the man who devised Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon which killed more than 17,000 civilians. It was he who resigned after being found indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Chatila massacre - the very same killings in which Mr Hobeika was named. And it was Mr Begin who pulled his troops out of the Chouf mountains in 1983, leaving hundreds of Christian militiamen like Mr Hatem to their fate at the hands of the Druze. Even the Sabra and Chatila slaughter is treated by Mr Hatem with kid gloves; he spends some time exonerating the Israelis who surrounded the camps and sent their ferocious Phalangist allies in among the women and children.

The fact that Syria comes off very badly in the book, its soldiers condemned as occupiers and killers, also suggests a foreign hand. Israel may want to withdraw its occupation troops from Lebanon, it seems, but is quite happy to rake over 16 years of civil conflict. In Lebanon, of course, there is horror at the book's appearance. Everyone thought the doors of Lebanon's terrible civil war had been firmly closed, the corpses forever interred, the hatred quietly rotting in the earth. From Israel to Damascus has dug up ancient graves.

No wonder Anwar al-Khalil, the Lebanese information minister, has formally banned the book under Resolution 79 of Decree 4 pursuant to press law (Article 50) of 1963. No one, after all, suspected that a snake might emerge from the graveyard.

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