Lebanese salute their 'martyrs' in Iraq war

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The Independent Online

One of the most recent Palestinian fighters - though the Americans apparently have no idea of his name - was killed in the US air attack on the hideout of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the presumed head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. The death of Saleh Qilawi, who was said to have been sharing the house in Baquba with Zarqawi, two of Zarqawi's wives, a child and another man when the jets fired two missiles into the building, was hailed through mosque loudspeakers in the Ein el-Helwe camp in Sidon.

Posters are appearing on the walls of Tripoli, praising more than 50 "martyrs", all Sunni Muslim Lebanese from a city where radical Islamic sermons have become frequent since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Tripoli and Ein el-Helwe, posters and banners proclaim the Lebanese people's support for "the heroes of Fallujah", the centre of the Iraqi insurgency in Anbar province which has been the battlefield for American troops and their Arab opponents for more than three years.

Qilawi left Sidon for Iraq a year ago, telephoning his parents regularly. As they "celebrated" his death - the families of the Lebanese and Palestinians who are killed fighting US forces claim they have no need to mourn - they received greetings from members of the Isbar al-Ansar movement which the Lebanese authorities claim was behind an Islamist uprising in the mountains of northern Lebanon six years ago.

In the Sidon camp, Darwish Hitti is also "celebrating" the death of his son Mohamed, who, with his friend Mohamed Yorshali, was killed a week ago. They do not know how the men died, although Mohamed Zaatari, a local reporter, said the mujahedin had left notes about their enrolment in the "jihad" and urged their parents not to cry.

It is clear that in both Sidon and Tripoli local recruiters seek possible fighters for Iraq; one Sidon resident says that not only the Isbar al-Ansar but the religious Tawheed (Unity) movement are involved in sending them to Iraq. Few make any secret that the would-be martyrs, who are also involved in suicide bombs against US troops, pass through Syria.

For Lebanon, these are tense times. The largest community in the country, the Shias, feel many common bonds with their fellow Shias in Iraq and are bitterly distressed at the destruction of mosques and other holy places for which the Americans place the blame on Sunni insurgents.

Several leading Shia prelates in Lebanon are related to their Iraqi opposite numbers. Yet the second largest Muslim community in Lebanon are Sunnis, who increasingly express their support for their Iraqi co- religionists. The Shias of southern and eastern Lebanon now look at the Mediterranean cities of Tripoli and Sidon with concern, bordering on suspicion.

Since the Alawite community which dominates political power in Syria is in effect Shia and the majority of Syrians are Sunni it is not difficult to understand the darker nightmares which afflict the people of this region. If the civil conflict in Iraq were to move west, it could open up religious fault lines from Baghdad to Lebanon, a distance of only 500 miles but an awesome prospect for the entire Arab world.

Robert Fisk will be speaking at public events in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Belfast in October. For further information, see www.seminars.ie or call 0800 404 7326