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US supplies Lebanese Army for fight against Fatah al-Islam

American involvement underscores complexity of Lebanese politics, intra-Arab conflicts.

By Staff writer / May 25, 2007

The United States and its Arab allies have entered into the fray in northern Lebanon, sending several planeloads of supplies to the Lebanese Army, currently locked in a standoff with Islamic militants in a Palestinian refugee camp.

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The Associated Press reports that ammunition and other supplies began arriving in Beirut Friday for the Lebanese Army's ongoing battle against Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.

Although U.S. officials said the military aid to Lebanon had been agreed to before the fighting broke out this week, the speedy shipment Friday marked the first tangible U.S. backing of the Lebanese authorities' fight with the militants.

By early afternoon Friday, a total of five military transport planes landed at the Beirut airport, including one from the U.S. Air Force, two from the Emirates' air force and two Royal Jordanian Air Force planes. Both Jordan and Emirates are close U.S. allies.

The United States involvement in the battle between the army of Lebanon, a nation roughly 60% Muslim and 40% Christian, and Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants underscores the complexities of intra-Arab relationships in the Middle East. The tiny nation, 0.7 times the size of Connecticut, contains many elements that sparked the larger region's conflicts: rival religions, a substantial Palestinian refugee population, and regional powers with a stake in local politics.

In an analysis of Lebanon's current crisis, which includes the effect on Lebanon of efforts to set up an international tribunal to investigate the killing of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (who many Lebanese believe was assassinated by Syrian agents), the BBC writes that Lebanon's complex mix of religious sects, many with ties abroad, "baffles outsiders," and that "even people in the Middle East find its politics confusing."

It has 18 officially recognised religious sects and sharing power between them has always been a complicated game. Lebanese Muslims have tended to look east for support from the other Arab states and from Iran. The Christians have tended to look west to Europe and the United States.

The country's proximity to Israel - and the presence of a large number of Palestinian refugees on its soil - mean it is also intimately tied to the Arab-Israeli dispute. While Lebanon has plenty of problems of its own, it has also become the arena where many of the region's conflicts and rivalries are played out.

The Economist writes that despite the lack of any overt Syrian involvement in the battle at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, many Lebanese see Damascus's hand in the clash.

Government officials charge that Syria, which ended a 29-year military presence in Lebanon only in 2005, is sowing such strife in a bid to regain its power-broking role. Another alleged Syrian aim is to block the setting up of an international tribunal to try suspects in a string of political murders beginning with the assassination in February 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a five-times Lebanese prime minister. With the pro-Syrian opposition refusing to back a law to create the court, the UN Security Council is now debating whether to establish it under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which could mandate sanctions against countries that refuse to co-operate.