Lebanon – Qahwaji evokes danger of “internal strife”

(The Daily Star, October 13, 2010)

The head of the Lebanese Army vowed his force would react swiftly and decisively to any civil disruption provoked by the UN probe into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as the United States on Tuesday pledged more than $20 million in short-term military funding.

General Jean Kahwaji expressed anxiety over the anticipated indictment of Hizbullah members by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and warned that such a decision from the court would likely produce “internal strife.”

The army would “prevent discord by force,” he added, following his suggestion that STL prosecutions would “make security more sensitive, and put obstacles in the military path in ensuring citizens’ security.

“The army, however, is ready to confront any security mishap,” Kahwaji said in remarks published Tuesday.

The heightened threat of violence in the streets, similar to that which tore through west Beirut and sections of the Chouf Mountains in May 2008, has been the recent topic of fierce political debate, centered on the STL.

In August, several were killed when Hizbullah supporters clashed with members of the Islamic Association of Charitable Projects – better known as Al-Ahbash – in the Beirut neighborhood of Burj Abi Haidar. The army intervened on that occasion, yet isolated pockets of violence persisted for several hours.

Kahwaji said he was confident the Army was sufficiently equipped to respond to any bouts of public violence.

“We have 4,000 troops in Beirut in addition to reserve forces to intervene when needed in case of any riots or chaos,” he said. “In Tripoli, there is a full army regiment and a commando unit in [the coastal town of] Amchit ready to intervene in the event of any unrest.”

The commander added that while groups bearing arms in Lebanon were common, they were mostly restricted to small weapons, which could easily be brought to heel.

“So far we have not monitored heavy weapons with anybody such as tanks, mortars and artillery,” Kahwaji told the political daily Al-Akhbar.

His comments were followed by a donation of a new marksmanship simulator, handed over to the army by US Ambassador Maura Connelly during a ceremony at Ablah military base.

The Engagement Skills Trainer (EST) 2000 will provide soldiers with realistic firearms training on pistols, rifles and machine guns, one of the areas numerous military analysts have suggested Lebanon currently lacks.

The EST donated Tuesday will be the first machine of its kind to be maintained and operated entirely by Lebanese soldiers and is part of a $3.5 million set of five designed to hone soldiers’ shooting skills.

“The EST 2000 is a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art marksmanship simulator used by the US military that represents a cutting-edge use of technology that makes weapons training both cost-effective and safer,” Connelly said during the handover.

Following August’s deadly altercation between Lebanese and Israeli soldiers along the Blue Line – which killed two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist, as well as a high-ranking Israeli officer – several US lawmakers expressed concerns over their country’s military support for Lebanon. Some members of Congress argued against continuing Washington’s commitment to provide equipment and training to the Lebanese Army, for fear of weapons ending up in Hizbullah’s hands, trained on Israel.

According to an embassy statement, however, the US is continuing to provide Lebanon with military aid, which has surpassed the $720 million mark since 2006.

“Over the next three months, the US will deliver another $22 million of equipment, including English language labs, Humvees, 30 155mm howitzers, and a wide range of munitions,” the statement said.

Connelly reiterated the US support for the army, saying: “The United States is proud of the relationship it has built with the [Lebanese Army] and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years to come.”