Lessons for US from a Shiite uprising in Lebanon

With US troops poised outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf ready to "capture or kill" the maverick cleric Moqtada Sadr, the US-led coalition would do well to ponder the lesson of another young Shiite cleric from south Lebanon.

His name was Sheikh Ragheb Harb, and in the early 1980s he was the relatively unknown imam of Jibsheet village. After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Sheikh Harb, inspired by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, exhorted his handful of followers to rise up against the occupation. He challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the Shiite clergy, who balked at using violence against the powerful Israeli army.

But Israel's measures to quash the nascent resistance caused civilian suffering, discouraging Shiite leaders from criticizing Sheikh Harb's violent tactics. Israel's repression helped fuel popular support for the resistance, and 18 years after the invasion, Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon.

Some veteran observers of south Lebanon see parallels between Israel's confrontation with Lebanese Shiites in the 1980s and the US-led coalition's campaign against Sadr in Iraq.

"The similarities between Iraq today and south Lebanon [in the 1980s] are very striking," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut who served with the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon from 1979 to 2003. "Even the language of American military commanders is the same as Israeli commanders back in the 1980s, talking of wiping out the enemy. But if you go in to wipe them out, then you will lose."

The US military appears to appreciate the symbolic importance of Najaf. The troop buildup may be geared more toward coercing Sadr to call off the uprising than a preparation for military action.

But a wrong move could reignite the Sadr revolt, analysts say. The coalition should back away, Mr. Goksel says, and allow the Shiite leadership to negotiate with Sadr behind the scenes. "Going in by force only undermines the efforts of the Shiites trying to talk an end to it," he says.

That view was shared by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who warned last week that relying on force "is a big mistake with severe consequences."

The US military has been criticized for adopting counterinsurgency tactics previously used by Israeli forces in Lebanon and more recently in the West Bank and Gaza, such as bulldozing houses of suspected militants, sealing off villages with razor wire, mass detentions, and excessive use of firepower.

It was similar tactics by Israel in the 1980s, coupled with a growing perception that Israeli forces had no intention of a swift departure, that goaded the Lebanese Shiites to turn to armed resistance.

As Sheikh Harb's small cells of fighters exacted a growing toll, the Israelis hit back. Sheikh Harb was shot dead in Jibsheet in February 1984 by Israeli-paid assassins, thousands of residents were sent to detention camps, and houses of suspected militants were dynamited.

Still, the Israelis were taken aback by the suddenness and resilience of the Shiite resistance. Just two years earlier, the same people had welcomed the invading Israeli troops with showers of rose petals and rice, grateful at the departure of the Palestinian fighters whose attacks into Israel from south Lebanon had brought heavy retaliation against Lebanese villages.

In December 1984, then-Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Augustus Richard Norton, a former UN observer in south Lebanon, that the Shiites had emerged from a bottle "like a genie."

"This tells you that Rabin had no clue of the history of the political mobilization of the Shiites that had been going on in front of his eyes," says Mr. Norton, a professor of anthropology at Boston University. "The fundamental mistake the Israelis made was to stay. By staying, the Israelis forced the moderates to get off the fence and to resist."

As with all such analogies, there are important differences. The Shiites had nothing to lose politically by launching a resistance campaign. In Iraq, however, the Shiite leadership expects to gain from Saddam Hussein's ousteras Shiites represent some 60 percent of the population. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite cleric, so far has advocated cautious cooperation with the coalition and appears to have played a leading role, via his son, in the negotiations to end the standoff with Sadr.

Most Shiites in Iraq are not yet inclined to take up arms against coalition forces - a reason, perhaps, why Sadr has signaled a willingness to negotiate.

But Shiite patience is finite, analysts say, and may become exhausted by the continued US troop presence and control over the Iraqi security forces after the June 30 handover of sovereignty.

Some analysts maintain that the Bush administration has misunderstood the nature of Shiite dynamics in Iraq - assuming Iraqi Shiites were secular by nature, discounting the transnational ties between Iraqi Shiites and their coreligionists elsewhere, and failing to appreciate the nature of authority in Shiite Islam and the importance of the Shiite clerical hierarchy.

"The US entered Iraq roughly ignorant of the most dynamic political forces in the country and it arrogantly assumed that it could subdue occupation by the mere use of force," Norton says.

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