In Lebanon, soldiers win new respect

Nearly 150 Lebanese soldiers have died recently in clashes with Al Qaeda-linked militants, but growing public support has lifted the Army's morale.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Mustafa Borghol stares solemnly out from one of dozens of "martyr" portraits stuck to walls in this village in northern Lebanon. The 24-year-old Lebanese Special Forces soldier is the 10th resident of Bibnine to die in three months of bitter fighting between the Lebanese Army and the Al Qaeda-inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, just three miles from here.

"This village used to be famous for fishing and carpentry," says Mohammed Borghol, Mustafa's father, while sitting in his butcher shop. "Now it is famous for its martyrs, and we are very proud of them."

With almost 150 soldiers having died in the worst internal violence since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, the Lebanese Army is being widely hailed as a unifying force in a country mired in deep political turmoil. Despite the high casualty count for the overstretched and underequipped Army, the imminent triumph against the militants has lifted the morale of a force that since 1990 has been overshadowed in military affairs by the Shiite militant group Hizbullah.

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"The fighting has definitely increased the credibility of the Lebanese Army in the eyes of the public," says Timur Goksel, who lectures in Beirut on conflict resolution and is a former long-serving United Nations official in southern Lebanon.

New moves to promote the Army

That public sentiment is being backed by a carefully choreographed promotional campaign of television ads and billboards boosting the profile of the Army. In one television spot, a Lebanese soldier walks down a main street in Beirut as passersby stop and salute him. Banks are offering credit cards with a military camouflage design. Billboards show heroic pictures of soldiers in action and praise the sacrifices of the Army.

Last week, more than 60 women and children were evacuated from Nahr al-Bared, mostly families of the Fatah al-Islam militants, the last noncombatants to leave the war-ravaged camp, previously home to a mainly Palestinian population of 40,000. Their departure heralds a final offensive against the surviving militants who are thought to number under 100.

Weeks of intense artillery shelling has reduced most of the camp to rubble. Bullet and shell holes pockmark the skeletal remains of buildings. The floors of other houses lie pancaked on top of one another. Lebanese flags flutter from the ruins, planted by soldiers as they inched through the warren-like passageways of the camp, battling the militants.

"They are good fighters; I'll give them that. Most of them have fought in Iraq," says Ahmad, a burly Special Forces soldier eating a falafel sandwich in a cafe on the edge of the camp. Ahmad said he had just returned to the front line after being treated for a gun shot wound in the thigh.

"The snipers and the hand grenades are the biggest problem," he says. "You just can't see them."

Although morale clearly remains high among the soldiers, Army officers say they lack the appropriate weapons and equipment to tackle the militants, the last of whom are holed up in well-constructed bunkers and tunnels built during the 1970s to protect against Israeli air raids. Much of the Army's hardware is an eclectic mix of outdated Soviet and NATO weapons, unsuitable for urban combat in Nahr al-Bared.

Instead, the troops have been forced to improvise. Army engineers have jury-rigged cabins of soldered steel plates and sandbags onto civilian bulldozers to protect drivers from snipers and bombs as they clear rubble inside the camp.

Soldiers say they lack equipment

Recently, in an attempt to winkle out the militants from their bunkers, the Army has made use of 1,000-pound aerial bombs from the 1960s, when Lebanon maintained a small air force. Each bomb is slung beneath a Vietnam war-era "Huey" helicopter and flown over the camp, then dropped manually and unguided onto the bunkers. The bombing runs tend to occur before dawn when the darkness masks the helicopters from groundfire.

"This is the technology of World War I, but we have no choice," says a senior Army general who requested anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to the press.

The United States is giving $270 million in military financial assistance to Lebanon for 2007, a 550 percent increase from 2006. Most of the assistance is allocated to nonlethal equipment and training. Only a fraction is committed to emergency ammunition, such as artillery shells for the Army's 155-mm guns. But the Army says that it could have crushed Fatah al-Islam by now if it had received appropriate weapons such as antitank missiles for helicopters.

"We need weapons, conventional and advanced ammunition," Gen. Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Army, said recently. "We didn't get anything but promises and best wishes and some ammunition, but no equipment. It's as though they are telling us, 'die first and assistance will follow.' "

The US views the Lebanese Army as key to stabilizing Lebanon and providing a counterweight to the military might of Hizbullah, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organization. But the US traditionally has been reluctant to provide weapons to the Army in case they end up being used against Israel.

"The Americans say they want to help us, but we have one big problem in the US, and that's their Congress," the anonymous general says. "They won't even let us have a handgun."

Army general for president?

Still, the Army's high profile and the praise for General Suleiman's leadership has marked him as a potential presidential candidate when elections are held next month.

Lebanon's feuding politicians so far have failed to reach consensus on the choice of the next president – who must be drawn from the Maronite community – and some Lebanese believe that the Army commander is the best choice to bridge the political divide.

Suleiman has played down the press speculation, but he has issued some carefully worded statements designed to appease both factions and he has paid a visit to the influential Maronite patriarch who has a powerful say in the choice of president.

Although he has a reputation as a capable Army commander, Suleiman was appointed to the post in 1998 when neighboring Syria dominated Lebanon and he enjoys close relations with the Iran-backed Hizbullah, which makes him suspect in the eyes of Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.

Other Lebanese oppose Suleiman's candidacy because it risks politicizing the Army, turning it into another faction in the quagmire of Lebanese politics.

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