BEIRUT, LEBANON — The parallels between the US-led invasion of Iraq and Israel's invasion of Lebanon 21 years ago are striking - and ominous.
Both involved modern armies invading initially through Shiite Muslim-dominated areas. Both armies also expected no opposition from local Shiites: US war planners hope for a warm reception from Iraqi Shiites grateful for an end of repression by Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim elite; Israel believed the Shiites of south Lebanon would be happy to see the back of Palestinian guerrillas whose presence had made life intolerable. Indeed, the Lebanese Shiites initially showered the invading Israeli troops with rose petals and rice. But the Israelis miscalculated about the Shiites, and the rice and rose petals soon turned into bombs and bullets.
Has the US made the same mistake about the Shiites of Iraq?
"Beware the Shiites!" wrote Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery recently, predicting that US problems in Iraq will begin once the fighting is over. He gave an example of two trips he paid to south Lebanon in 1982. During the first visit, four days after the Israeli invasion, he recounted being greeted with "great" joy by Shiite villagers. A few months later, Mr. Avnery returned to Lebanon and found Israeli troops "now wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, many on the verge of panic. "What had happened? The Shiites received the Israeli soldiers as liberators. When they realized that they had come to stay as occupiers, they started to kill them," he wrote.
The opposition to coalition forces in southern Iraq is being waged by units of Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary force deployed from areas further north. But there are reports of civilians joining the Fedayeen, enraged at the invasion of their homeland and the bombing of their cities.
In an easily missed report, CNN's Ryan Chilcote, embedded with the 101st Airborne Division, spoke of the reaction of local Shiites as the troops passed through their towns.
In the first town, Mr. Chilcote reported, the US soldiers were "quite literally applauded." But in the next town, the reaction was markedly different. It was "eerie," he said. The villagers stared unsmiling at the passing American troops. "It had all the ingredients of an ambush," Chilcote said, and had the US commanders "really worried."
To add to the potential difficulties facing the coalition forces, Shiite religious authorities in Iraq's southern city of Najaf on Tuesday called on the Iraqi people "to defend their country, honor, and religion by expelling the unbelievers from the land of Islam."
Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the head of the Iran-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest Shiite opposition group, warned on Tuesday that his followers are "ready to take up arms" should coalition troops become an occupation force. The Badr Brigades, SCIRI's 15,000-strong military wing deployed in Iran, with some units in northern Iraq, have so far stayed out of the fighting.
"The American troops will face a very strong resistance in just a couple of months. They will have to leave the cities and move into the desert," says Abu Ali, a veteran of Lebanon's Hizbullah organization who fought Israeli troops from 1982. "I know the Iraqi people," he said, having spent his childhood in Najaf in southern Iraq, "and I think the Americans will face the same resistance the Israelis faced in Lebanon, even harsher."