Iraq's future as an independent nation hangs heavily on the unity of its military. As its Army starts to operate without US support, will it become a cohesive, patriotic force whenever challenged by Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds – or Al Qaeda?
A similar challenge struck Lebanon's Army this week. It has been battling up to 200 Islamic militants in a Palestinian refugee camp near the Mediterranean city of Tripoli. Close to 100 people have been killed since Sunday. Whether the Lebanese people stay united behind the Army during this fight could provide a foretaste of what might happen in Iraq in the months and years ahead.
As in Iraq, Lebanon is riven by religious sects, sapped by war, pockmarked with Islamic radicals, and frozen with fear over difficult political choices. A weak government in Beirut faces a presidential election in September, creating a political stalemate in the interim. And its leaders are being intimidated by a bullying neighbor, Syria – as Iraq's various factions are by nearby Iran. Always ready to keep Lebanon under its thumb, Syria does not want the Beirut government to go along with a United Nations probe of Syria's suspected hand in the 2005 assassination of a popular Lebanese prime minister.
Lebanon's 60,000-strong Army – weak as it is and reflecting the crosscurrents of sectarian strains – still stands as a symbol of hope for national unity. It failed during the 1975-90 war. It began to become a national force only after the exit of Syria's troops two years ago. It did little during last summer's 34-day war between Israel and the Shiite Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. And after that war, it was tasked with the difficult job of helping UN forces stop the flow of arms to Hizbullah.
The Army remains weak largely because Lebanon's various factions – Christian, Druze, and Muslim – don't want it to be used against any of them. The United States, seeking to bolster the country's democracy, has provided some military aid. But the amount is too little to create a force that could stand up to Syria, Hizbullah, and especially Israel. Yet, in this week's standoff with the jihadist Arab group known as Fatah al-Islam, the Army has shown that it has muscle.
Most of all, it received popular backing. Street crowds around Tripoli cheered for it. On Monday, the government authorized it to end this "terrorist phenomenon" in the camps. Lebanese commentators called on the central government to show as much unity as the military does in the fighting.
As in Iraq, the Lebanese Army won't find it easy to rid its country of terrorists. Other, stronger Arab governments, such as those in Egypt and Jordan, have worked hard to suppress militant Islamists but with checkered success. The Lebanese Army's shelling of civilian areas in the Palestinian camp over the past few days shows that it still has much to learn about how to conduct counterinsurgency warfare.
In addition to Hizbullah's private forces, Lebanon is home to 400,000 Palestinian refugees in 12 camps. These are fertile ground for the training of jihadist groups of various stripes. But the Lebanese Army, perhaps like Iraq's, may recognize that it is fighting for something larger than national unity. It is battling for civilization and against the politics of religious division and a jihadist vision of an antidemocratic, Islamic caliphate. Iraqis should keep an eye on Tripoli.