The death of a noted drug dealer and the revenge killing of four soldiers have plunged the Lebanese Army into a confrontation with the powerful Shiite clans that rule Lebanon's wild northern Bekaa Valley.
Hundreds of Lebanese special forces backed by helicopters deployed this week into the northern Bekaa, raiding homes and encircling villages in a manhunt for a gang suspected of carrying out an attack on Monday against an Army patrol that left four soldiers dead.
But the clash between the Army and clans in the Bekaa, a Hezbollah stronghold, has placed the powerful Shiite organization in an awkward position.
Long loathe to tangle with the clans from which it derives much grass-roots support, the organization had turned a blind eye to their criminality for years. But when a car thief struck one of its own, Hezbollah signalled its consent to the Army to crack down. Now, some angry clan members are vowing to vote against the Hezbollah-led opposition in June 7 parliamentary elections, shaping up to be the closest in decades.
The tough and close-knit Shiite clans have long held sway in the remote arid plain of the northern Bekaa, an area traditionally ignored by successive Lebanese governments. Some of them earn huge profits from drug trafficking, hashish cultivation, car theft, and counterfeiting.
In the impoverished village of Dar Al-Wasaa, tucked into rocky hills on the western flank of the Bekaa Valley, a woman from the Jafaar clan, one of the largest and most powerful tribes in the area, explains why they rely on drugs for income.
"This area is extremely neglected by the government," says the middle-aged woman, who declined to give her full name. "There is no way to earn a living. What are we supposed to do? Eat rocks? There's nothing for us to do but sell drugs."
Why Hezbollah's tolerance snapped
Although Hezbollah disapproves of drugs on moral and religious grounds, it generally ignores the hashish cultivation and heroin refining that takes place in the northern Bekaa.
And it has not been averse to exploiting narcotics as a weapon against Israel. After Israel withdrew from an occupied strip of south Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah coopted the existing cross-border drug smuggling networks.
Drug dealers in south Lebanon smuggle hashish and heroin across the border into Israel in exchange for cash for themselves and intelligence information for Hezbollah. The Israeli authorities have busted several drugs-for-intel spy rings in northern Israel in the past few years. One of the largest was run by a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army who, ironically, lost an eye to a Hezbollah roadside bomb while serving in south Lebanon in the 1990s.
But Hezbollah's tolerance of the criminality in the Bekaa snapped a few months ago when thieves stole a car belonging to Jihad Mughniyah, son of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah's top military commander who was assassinated last year in Damascus car bombing.
According to a source familiar with the incident, Mughniyah was hunting with friends near Chaat village in the Bekaa when members of the Zeaiter clan snatched his vehicle, apparently unimpressed that its owner was the son of the legendary Mughniyah.
In response, Hezbollah quietly gave a green light to the Army to mount a crackdown on the gangs of car thieves. But the army's round-up expanded to include drug dealers and hashish farmers, infuriating the clans, some of whom are vowing to vote against Hezbollah in the upcoming election.
Army hits the road to Bekaa
On Monday, four soldiers were killed and 11 wounded near the Bekaa town of Rayak in an ambush suspected to have been carried out by members of the Jaafar clan. The attack was revenge for the killing last month of Ali Abbas Jaafar, a drug dealer who had 172 outstanding arrest warrants. Lebanese soldiers shot him in his car on a dirt track outside Dar al-Wasaa.
Speaking Monday after the ambush against the soldiers, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said that the Army was a "red line" and vowed "to strike with an iron fist" against the perpetrators.
The next day, the highway leading from Beirut to the Bekaa was clogged with tank transporters carrying camouflaged armored personnel carriers and trucks filled with red-bereted soldiers. Troops set up numerous checkpoints on the roads leading to Dar al-Wasaa, while helicopters clattered high above, keeping well out of the range of rocket-propelled grenades carried by the fugitives.
Survivors of Army attack tell their story
The village was eerily quiet in the bright morning sunshine. The men of Dar al-Wasaa had fled ahead of the approaching soldiers, grabbing their weapons and disappearing into the rugged mountains, the traditional refuge for the clans.
The Lebanese army claimed that Ali Abbas Jaafar had failed to stop at a checkpoint, forcing the soldiers to open fire at his vehicle. Ali Abbas and another member of the Jaafar family were killed.
But those in the vehicle who survived offer a different version, insisting that the troops ambushed Ali Abbas and opened fire without warning.
"We didn't see the soldiers or their vehicles. All we saw were bullets coming from the trees, hitting the car and us," says Salwa Jaafar, who had hitched a ride in Ali Abbas' car along with her four children. She was wounded in the arm and in one lung. Her teenage son, Ahmad, was hit in the back.
Salwa claimed that the soldiers beat them despite their wounds and it took the intervention of armed members of the Jaafar clan before they were allowed to go to hospital for treatment.
The incident has inflamed the Jaafars, arousing fierce instincts of revenge and tribal solidarity.
"Yes, the Jaafars do kill, but only those that kill us," says a close female relative of Salwa, her voice rising with anger. "The soldiers who were killed deserve to be killed. I support the boys that did this. Understand this: If they kill one of us, we kill one of them. If I know where the men are who killed the soldiers I would go and kiss their feet for what they have done."