Lebanon's militias rearm before vote

Weeks ahead of presidential elections, black market weapons sales are soaring as factions prepare for street battles.

It has been a good year for Abu Jamil, a Lebanese arms dealer.

"People are buying guns more than ever. They are expecting a war," says this portly, shaven-headed former militiaman as he shows friends a photograph of his newly purchased SUV on his mobile phone.

The deadline for Lebanon's presidential election is less than three weeks away and with no signs of consensus over a candidate among feuding political factions, many Lebanese fear a violent outcome.

The rising tensions come amid heightened speculation that Lebanon's political factions are arming themselves, resuscitating old militias from the 1975-90 civil war and building new ones in anticipation of street battles ahead.

Black-market arms sales have soared in the past year as worried Lebanese seek to protect themselves. The weapon of choice is the AK-47 assault rifle. A year ago, the most popular version of this classic weapon, the 1977-vintage "circle 11" (named after the markings stamped into the rifle's metal work) fetched around $500.

"It will cost you $900 now," says Mr. Jamil.

The vast majority of the weapons are traded inside Lebanon rather than smuggled or imported from abroad. Arms dealers buy and sell weapons to each other, regardless of political affiliations.

"We are all here to make money," Jamil says.

The rise in arms sales has led to an increase in shooting practice in the remoter tracts of the Lebanese mountains, where the distant crackle of rifle fire is now a common sound. Although rival political camps regularly trade accusations that the other side is arming and forming militias, little evidence has emerged of wide-scale paramilitary training. Most of the weapons training appears to be ad hoc, involving small groups of friends.

Hizbullah trains reserve force

The exception is Hizbullah, which does not disguise the fact that it has undergone a large-scale recruitment and training program since the end of last year's 34-day war with Israel. However, Hizbullah's leaders say the role of the military wing is to defend Lebanon from Israeli aggression, not fight fellow Lebanese.

Still, in recent months Hizbullah has recruited former Shiite street fighters and marshaled them into a reservist force in the event of civil war, leaving the well-trained and disciplined guerrilla fighters to face Israel.

A source close to Hizbullah additionally confirmed that the Shiite group has given weapons to supporters of allied opposition groups – a charge made recently by the government, but denied by Hizbullah's leadership.

On the other hand, the opposition has accused the anti-Syrian March 14 parliamentary majority, which forms the backbone of the government, of arming supporters, undergoing paramilitary training in Lebanon and Jordan, and creating new militias in the guise of private security companies.

"Go to the mountains and see how the [Druze] PSP [Progressive Socialist Party] is patrolling their areas. Their behavior alone is driving the situation close to civil war," says Nawaf Mussawi, Hizbullah's head of external relations.

Following a deadly Sunni-Shiite riot in Beirut in January, local PSP party leaders contacted cadres and summoned them for weekend small-arms training in their Chouf mountain stronghold, according to a member of the PSP. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the training has since stopped.

Walid Jumblatt, leader of the PSP, admitted that some Druze had purchased weapons after the January riot, but insisted that there was no formal military training by his party.

"I visited the villages and told them it's useless to have weapons. We can't win against Hizbullah, they are too strong," he says.

Even if there is no large-scale paramilitary training under way, there are emerging indications that former militias are reorganizing structurally.

The Mourabitoun, a leading Sunni militia in the early stages of the civil war, has reappeared as a political entity allied to the March 14 block. Mourabitoun gunmen helped reinforce Lebanese troops in May during the opening stage of a three-month battle against Al-Qaeda-inspired militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon.

Christians and Druze reorganize

A former senior Lebanese army officer close to top Christian and Druze leaders admitted that the PSP and the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party and former wartime militia, are organizing themselves in anticipation of a violent confrontation between Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis. Commanders are being appointed in towns and villages and communications links established, he says. The idea, he says, is to ensure that the Christian- and Druze-dominated Mount Lebanon district remains neutral if fighting breaks out between Sunnis and Shiites.

"We are working on ensuring that the Christians and Druze stay out of the fighting," he says. "Everyone has a gun in their home and they will use it to defend their homes only."

Billboards are being erected throughout the country carrying messages warning against falling into the trap of sectarian fighting. One billboard portrays a small solemn-looking boy with an M-16 rifle. "Before you are dragged in," the caption reads.

Still, sectarian hostility is easily found in Beirut's neighborhoods.

"Why should Hizbullah be the only group to have weapons? We need weapons to defend ourselves against them," says Ahmad Shatila, a Sunni from the district of Tarik al-Jdeide.

But many Hizbullah supporters are losing patience with what they regard as the party's policy of restraint toward its political opponents.

Asked if he thought a Sunni-Shiite war would happen, Hassan, a new Hizbullah recruit, smiled and said: "God willing."

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