A Lebanese soldier drew aside a plastic sheet exposing the body of a dead fighter from the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam faction. Dressed only in olive-green combat trousers, the shaven-headed, goateed militant was killed on Sunday, shot through the head as he and several of his comrades swam out to sea in a desperate and doomed attempt to evade the army cordon around this shell-battered coastal Palestinian refugee camp. "You don't look so tough now, do you," sneered a Lebanese soldier prodding his dead enemy's naked foot with the barrel of an AK-47 rifle. The Lebanese army said that 38 militants were killed and 24 captured, although it is believed that at least 10 managed to escape, some of them by following the winding Bared River after which the Palestinian camp is named.
A day after the end of a bloody and protracted three-month battle between Lebanese troops and Fatah al-Islam, soldiers scoured the hilly countryside around Nahr al-Bared for the handful of militants who have so far avoided death or capture. Helicopters swung and dipped above the camp, seeking any fighters who may have chosen to lay low in the rubble and bombed-out buildings before making their escape. The fighting had left more than 225 people dead, 163 of them Lebanese soldiers. In a televised address, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora praised the army for achieving the "biggest victory over terrorists." Yet the ingredients that fed the fighting political gridlock, a crisis-wracked government and endemic anti-Americanism remain potent recruiting factors for al-Qaeda and its ilk in Lebanon, with serious ramifications for the region. Indeed, as evidence of the gravity of the situation, the U.S. airlifted additional artillery ammunition to the Lebanese army during the Nahr al-Bared fighting and Beirut is set to receive $270 million in U.S. military assistance this year, a 550% increase on 2006.
The final chapter in what has been the worst internal violence in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war began before dawn on Sunday when the last few dozen surviving Fatah al-Islam militants attempted to escape the camp by punching through army lines. Assisted by a group of fighters from outside Nahr al-Bared, the militants attacked army positions at the southern, northern and eastern edges of the camp.
One group of five militants emerged onto the coastal road running along the eastern perimeter of Nahr al-Bared. They shot dead an army officer and a soldier before bursting into a house occupied by an extended family of 30 people sheltering from the fighting. "We were hugging our children in terror," said Bushra Salma, wearing a full-length black chador, as she recounted the experience and poured tea into small glasses. Her relative, Abdullah Boukhalil, said one of the militants, who spoke with a Saudi accent, pointed a gun at his head and demanded directions to escape the area. The fighters, dressed in black uniforms and armed with rifles, grenades and plentiful ammunition, initially attempted to take with them Zulfiqar al-Beiruti, a 14-year-old boy, as a hostage, but then abandoned the idea and fled. "We thought we were all going to die. But God loved us," Boukhalil said. One of the five militants, the Saudi, was shot and wounded by soldiers outside the house. The other four, who included a Palestinian and a Yemeni, were later killed in a clash with troops several miles away, said Boukhalil, who was asked by the army to identify the bodies.
At Ayoun al-Samaq, a spring on the Bared River three miles upstream from the camp, several residents of nearby Jdeidet al-Qaitta village kept a wary eye on the dense green orange orchards and banana plantations that flank the river. "We know that there are Fatah al-Islam men in the area and we are taking precautions," said Jihad al-Ajil. A truck full of soldiers was parked on a small bridge over the river. Other troops could be seen scouring the undergrowth and olive groves on the steep slopes of the valley.
The crackle of sporadic rifle fire could be heard a few hundred yards downstream as soldiers hunted for a militant who had been spotted a couple of hours earlier. "He took a tractor driver hostage with a pistol and hoped to get away," Ajil said. As the tractor rounded a corner before the river bridge, the militant saw an army checkpoint a hundred yards ahead and jumped from the vehicle. "He disappeared into the bushes. He's armed with a pistol, but God willing we will catch him," Ajil said.
Despite the Lebanese army's triumph against Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared, many Lebanese are worried about further violence from militant jihadists, both home-grown and foreign, who could be enticed by Lebanon's worsening security environment. In the poorer Sunni areas of Lebanon, Osama bin Laden remains a symbol of popular defiance against the West and the United States in particular. In the impoverished Tebbaneh quarter of Tripoli in north Lebanon, graffiti praising bin Laden and former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are scrawled on the walls of drab apartment blocks alongside posters of Saddam Hussein. The quarter has offered many recruits for the Iraq insurgency and several residents joined Fatah al-Islam, two of them blowing themselves up during street battles in Tripoli in May. "Islamic extremists don't have to go to Tebbaneh to recruit people, Tebbaneh goes to them," said Sheikh Ibrahim Salih, a prominent Salafi cleric in Tripoli.
A grinding political crisis between a weak U.S.-backed government and the Hizballah-led opposition has paralyzed the country for months. Lebanese security agencies, which should be responsible for monitoring and curbing the growth of militant groups, are under-equipped, ill-trained and increasingly factionalized along the country's political fault lines. Lebanon's proximity to Israel makes it a potential base for al-Qaeda-inspired militants to launch attacks against the Jewish state. Even the presence of some 13,300 foreign mainly European United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon makes for an attractive target.
General William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Central Command, paid a rare visit to Beirut last week to discuss further military cooperation. Some analysts believe that the government is becoming too reliant on American military and political assistance and is being sucked into Washington's "war on terrorism." "Ever since the eruption of the battle with Fatah al-Islam, Lebanon has become an integral part of the U.S. battle against Al-Qaeda," wrote Sateh Noureddine, columnist for Lebanon's As Safir newspaper, following General Fallon's visit. He warned that being associated as an ally of the U.S. against Al-Qaeda could have "detrimental effects on security" in Lebanon. The battle for Nahr al-Bared may have ended, but is Lebanon's struggle against Al-Qaeda-style militants only just beginning?