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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
"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.