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Biden in Lebanon amid Israel assassination attempt claims

Oliver Scanlan
22 May 2009

Sixteen days ahead of crucial Lebanese elections, United States Vice-President Joe Biden was in Lebanon on Friday, ostensibly to reinforce support for an "independent and sovereign Lebanon." However, several of his comments drew criticism from the Hizbollah-led Lebanese opposition that the purpose of his visit was intrusively political.

In a move that will add to the tensions in the run up to the 7 June elections, on Friday, Nawaf al-Moussawi, a Hizbollah deputy and former top foreign policy official, accused Israel of planning to assassinate Hizbollah scretary general Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah. Speaking to pan-Arab London-based daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, al-Moussawi said that such an attack would "set the region ablaze" and that Hizbollah was preparing for such an eventuality.

The toD Verdict: Regardless of the PR spin the White House might want to put on Biden's visit, when he tells Lebanese voters that their "enduring" partnership with the US depends on their commitment to ‘freedom', the message is clear. The prospect of a group that the United States has labelled a terrorist organisation gaining a majority in a democratic election in itself would constitute a diplomatic setback, with memories of the Hamas electoral victory in 2006 looming large.

But Hizbollah is not just another terrorist group. The group is widely held to be responsible for the 1983 bombings of both the US embassy in Lebanon and, even more traumatically, the barracks which resulted in the deaths of 241 American servicemen. Referred to in neo-conservative circles as the "A-team" of terrorist groups, it is backed by Iran and Syria. Moreover, it presents a still unresolved military threat to Israel.

In the 2006 "Summer War" between Israel and Hizbollah, the Shia militant group fought the IDF to a standstill and the domestic political fallout in Israel crippled then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and resulted in the resignation of then IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. This successful defence of the southern Lebanese border in defiance of the region's military super power raised Hassan Nasrallah's profile across the middle east and further increased the group's political influence in Lebanon enormously.

It is this last fact that makes Al-Moussawi's claims more than paranoid ravings. Nasrallah's predecessor as head of Hizbollah, Sayyad Abbas Musawi was himself assassinated by the Israelis in 1992, a precedent which will clearly not be lost on Nasrallah himself.

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The hostile response of both Israel and America to Hamas' victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 could be repeated on 7 June if the Lebanese electorate, in its folly, chooses to ignore its "commitment to freedom". It is unclear at this point how hostile the response would have to be to elicit a response from a Hizbollah-dominated Lebanese legislature. Hassan Nasrallah has always clearly separated the activities of the political party from those of its armed wing, the Islamic Resistance. His assassination, however, would likely be a catalytic event that would at once trigger another war in the Levant and reverse, probably irrevocably, Hizbollah's slow metamorphosis from a militant faction to a demilitarised, engaged party playing a constructive role in Lebanon's own political transformation.  

Bomb attacks rock Baghdad

On Thursday, a second consecutive day of bomb attacks claimed the lives of at least 25 people in Baghdad, including three US soldiers. The toll for the 24 hour period now stands at more than 60 dead, with 140 wounded. The attacks have thus far targeted US troops, Iraqi police and members of the Awakening councils, who allied themselves with the United States against the al-Qaeda presence in Iraq as well as other Sunni insurgents.

The means by which the American troops were killed is subject to differing accounts, with the US military claiming they were killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while Iraqi police and security forces saying a suicide bomber blew themselves up near the patrol. Another bomb attack struck Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, on Thursday, killing eight members of the Awakening movement and wounding nine others. 

Suu Kyi visit "part of a plot" as diplomats banned from her trial

The bizarre visit of an American national to the home of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has been labelled a plot by "anti-government forces" on the fifth day of her trial. The American, whose name is John Yettaw, entered her residence, where she was being held under house arrest, by swimming across a lake to avoid security. He accomplished this feat twice, being arrested on the second occasion.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win, quoted by the state press on Friday, said that this incident was an attempt to increase international pressure on the Myanmar government. Suu Kyi has been charged with allowing a visitor to stay at her home without official permission, which carries a sentence of five years. She has been under house arrest for thirteen of the last nineteen years and her current trial is being held behind closed doors, with international diplomats banned from attending.

Netanyahu dismantles a settlement in wake of Obama talks

The day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from what many felt were unproductive talks with President Barack Obama in Washington, Israeli police removed Israeli settlers from a hill top on the West Bank. At the talks, Obama had urged that Netanyahu accept a two-state solution and halt all settlement activity on the West Bank. Netanyahu endorsed Palestinians' right to govern themselves, but stopped short of endorsing full statehood.

Over thirty settlers were removed by police and the settlement itself, "Esther's Stronghold", constituting seven cabins, was bulldozed. Technically an "outpost", "Esther's Stronghold" was considered by Israeli courts to be illegal. Later on Thursday, Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel's claim to an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, a highly controversial position for Palestinians who insist on their right to East Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state.    

Three killed in Yemen disturbances

On the fifteenth anniversary of the day when secessionist leader Ali Salem al-Beidh declared an end to the Yemen Union and the secession of the South from the North, three people were killed in Aden during clashes between protesters and police. President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh said that secessionists would not succeed.

Tensions between the North and the oil-rich South have been a feature of Yemeni politics since the union of the two countries in 1990. In 1994, after al-Beidh's declaration, there was a brief war between government forces and secessionists that ended in a government victory.

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