Exiled Michel Aoun is US-French-backed Candidate for Lebanese President

US president George W. Bush has set his face in his second term on extinguishing Middle East conflicts rather than starting new fires. This tendency gained urgency Saturday night, April 4, when two years after embarking on a guerrilla war against US forces, Iraqi insurgents and their allies were still capable of launching their largest assault on the American base guarding the Abu Ghraib prison camp west of Baghdad. The American unit repulsed the attack at the cost of 44 injured men, inflicting injuries on at least 50 insurgents, including one dead. But the battle raged all night and involved 7 suicide bombers, as well as mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and masses of automatic weapons.
This engagement cast a cloud over the first political breakthrough in Baghdad, the choice of a national assembly speaker. It may also have further encouraged the White House to seek a formula for avoiding war while yet somehow preventing radical Islamic groups from seizing power in Beirut and Ramallah through the ballot box.
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In Lebanon, the first step of this strategy was skillfully pulled off by US deputy assistant secretary of state David Satterfield. He successfully negotiated a four-cornered truce between the anti-Syrian opposition Druze and Christian leaders and the pro-Syrian and Hizballah camps. These accords (first revealed fully in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 200 on April 1) were fashioned in two unprecedented encounters no one had dreamed possible between two unlikely pairs: the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who sate opposite Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, and the Maronite Christian Patriarch, Archbishop Nasrallah Sfeir who shortly after returning from Washington, faced the anti-Syrian camp’s archenemy, President Emile Lahoud.
The interlocking accords had two immediate effects:
1, Syria finally buckled and decided to remove its troops from Lebanon, including intelligence and radar units, without further delay.
2. All four interlocutors agreed to Maronite General Michel Aoun, 63, returning from his Paris exile to Beirut and backing him for president to succeed Lahoud after the general election. As head of a military government, Aoun was banished by the Syrians 14 years ago. Monday, April 4, Aoun announced in Paris he would be returning home in five weeks when the Syrians were out of the country.
debkafile‘s Paris sources report that President Jacques Chirac has ordered the French diplomats and intelligence services working with American opposite numbers in Beirut to prepare a hero’s welcome for the returning exile.
But the reconciliation steps have created some negative anomalies too:
A. The Hizballah terrorist group will keep its arms, notwithstanding the second half of Security Council Resolution 1559 which calls for the disarming of Lebanon’s militias. The Jumblatt-Nasrallah deal hinged on a waiver for the Hizballah terrorist group, allowing it to stay armed for an unlimited period. This spiked ball was rolled into Washington’s court. Picking it up could derail the entire boldly-conceived system of accords for Lebanon’s post-Syrian future.
B. Shelving the Hizballah disarmament issue also left in place the Iranian Revolutionary Guards units which are present in Lebanon as an integral part of the Hizballah. The same applies to Iranian undercover agents in the country under the Hizballah umbrella.
C. The Druze and Hizballah leaders are willing to defy Washington in order to postpone the May election. This delay threatens to delay indefinitely the momentum of political transition from a pro-Syrian to a pro-Western regime – which is why US officials keep on harping on the importance of Lebanon’s election taking place on time in May. Monday, April 4, Bush stated firmly once again that the May election must go forward on schedule.
D. As in Iraq, American diplomacy cut the Sunni Muslim factions out of the new political reconciliation equation with the predictable effect of putting their backs up. That explains why the pro-Syrian Sunni prime minister Omar Karame keeps on refusing to follow the scrip and step down to make way for a new government.
Because nothing in the Middle East is ever plain sailing, the usual do-gooder intelligence veterans are busy stirring up the Lebanese pot too. In the third week of March, a US-British team got together in Beirut with a joint Hizballah-Hamas group. The Hizballah was represented by Lebanese MPs Mohammed Rayad, Hussein Khalil and Ibrahim Fainash; Hamas, by Mussa Abu Marzook and Osama Hamdan.
On the American team were ex-CIA officers who went to work for think tanks after their retirement, led by Graham Fuller, who was associated for some years with Rand Corp but not any more. The British contingent was led by Alistair Crooke, who in the early years of the Palestinian terror war acted for MI6 and the European Union in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He no longer acts for either. The third senior member was Dr. Beverley Edwards, an American Islam expert, who teaches at British universities.
Hizballah and Hamas went hand in hand to this meeting because all sides shared the hope of engineering a coupling between political solutions for the Hizballah in Lebanon and he Palestinian Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The two Islamist terrorist groups seemed to believe the American-British delegates were the secret messengers of vice president Richard Cheney. They enthused over what they perceived as their first contact with the Bush administration.
Our Washington sources stress that nothing is further from the truth. Washington sent no delegation and would not in any case join hands with the British or pursue any political initiative that could place its vital understanding and cooperation with France on Lebanon at risk.
The situation is Ramallah is much trickier. Hamas expects to ride into power through the front door opened by Mahmoud Abbas by calling parliamentary elections for July. To block Hamas’ rise, large sections of Abbas’ own Fatah, spearheaded by the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, have risen up against him and his interior minister Nasser Yousef, although that is not the only cause of their revolt. Washington had counted on these two leaders to reform the Palestinian Authority and usher in a democratic Palestinian state. Instead, Fatah gunmen now occupy government offices in Ramallah, joined by the national guard which is supposed to protect the PA Chairman. Ahmed Qureia is conspiring with Farouk Kadoumi, the hard-line Fatah leader based in Damascus, to oust Abbas and so thwart Hamas’ bid to dominate the Palestinian Authority. Al Aqsa Brigades and Hamas are on a temporary collision course, but rather than fighting it out between themselves, they are planning to compete for primacy in the anti-Israel terror arena in the coming months.
This crisis places leaves Abu Mazen’s visit to Washington later this month very much in the air. It will no doubt figure large in the talks Bush holds with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in Crawford on April 11. They will have to decide on the merits and drawbacks of granting equal political opportunities to the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas, neither of which is prepared to renounce its violent goals.

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