Israel and Iran trade threats over Lebanon

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If jaw-jaw is better than war-war, Lebanon might survive the coming days. But the jaw-jaw is now heavy with mutual threats by Israel and Iran to strike at each other's interests, and Lebanon - after Wednesday's suicide bombing against Israeli occupation troops - remains the preferred battlefield of both sides.

Warnings from the Iranian embassy in Beirut and promises - from a sealed bunker - by the Lebanese Hizbollah leader of further "human bombs" against Israeli occupation troops did not offer peace. In Israel last night, the minister of internal security, Moshe Shahal, said that Hizbollah and its "backers" would receive "a painful blow, and one which they would remember". None of which augurs well.

Iran began the day with an unprecedented warning from its embassy in Beirut that it "holds the Zionist entity and its American protectors responsible in advance for any aggression against it or against any other institution that belongs to the Islamic Republic in Lebanon or anywhere else in the world".

Given the number of Israeli photo-reconnaissance missions over Beirut in the past week, it seems certain that Iran fears an Israeli bombing raid against its embassy complex in west Beirut, a well-guarded compound near the sea-front, surrounded by high walls and black-painted iron gates, whose location must be easily recognisable on Israel's high- altitude photographs.

Within hours, however, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iranian- financed Hizbollah "Party of God" - whose suicide bomber, Ali Ashmar, 20, blew himself up on Wednesday in an attack on an Israeli patrol in the southern Lebanese village of Taibe - promised further assaults against Israel's occupation force in the country. "There are many brothers in the resistance who are yearning and competing to join the party's human bomb battalions," he said. "The resistance will continue . . . regardless of the sacrifice."

But if the Iranian statement expressed concern for its embassy staff and for the Hizbollah, Sayed Nasrallah's ostensibly bellicose press conference, in an underground bunker to which journalists were taken in a windowless van, contained other messages. If Israel launched a military blitz against Lebanon, he said, it would pay a "costly" price. Hizbollah was under no pressure to ease its attacks. "The decision on the resistance is our own. Both Iran and Syria support our right of resistance against the occupation."

While the latter is technically true, the Americans have been beseeching Syria, the conduit for the Hizbollah's arms, to suspend the guerrilla army's attacks on Israeli troops in Lebanon, while at the same time advising Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, not to stage any military operations into Lebanon.

Given the bloody consequences of previous land assaults by Israel - to the Israelis as well as to Lebanese civilians - Mr Peres may still be persuaded to order air strikes against the interests of Iran, which he condemned as the "capital of terror" at last week's Sharm el-Sheikh summit. Hence the Iranian statement.

If Israel is planning any military adventures to avenge the deaths of six Israeli soldiers, including two officers, in Lebanon in less than two weeks, spring storms and heavy cloud-cover across the country may have stayed Mr Peres's hand. Lebanese authorities remain fearful that Israel will deport across the frontier hundreds of imprisoned Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, along with their families. So worried were UN troops that deportations might begin that their soldiers set up roadblocks on the coastal highway south of Naqqoura on Sunday to prevent any forced Palestinian exodus from reaching their headquarters. Lebanese troops have laid mines on southern Lebanese roads for the same purpose.

The crisis has been further muddied by deteriorating relations between the Lebanese government and the US embassy in Beirut, which this week condemned the release of two Palestinians on trial for kidnapping the American ambassador, his economic councillor and driver at the start of the civil war 20 years ago. Nameq Kamel and Bassam al-Firkh, both former members of George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were freed after both had claimed they were covered by a civil war amnesty law and did not know that they were abducting an ambassador. Mr Francis Melloy and his colleagues were taken from the US embassy car - which was flying the US flag - and later murdered; their bodies were found on a Beirut beach on the night of their abduction in 1976.

A harsh statement from the new American ambassador, Richard Jones, expressed astonishment at the Lebanese decision - although throughout the trial, the US embassy showed no interest in the case, not even bothering to send a diplomat to attend the trial.