The Lebanon Scenario

Iraq under occupation is starting to look uncomfortably similar to Lebanon during its long civil war. The central government exists only in name, and neither police nor occupying troops are able to keep the peace. In response, militias organized along ethnic and religious lines are taking up arms. Neighboring countries patronize friendly groups, or try to undermine rival ones. Arms smuggling over the borders is rife. Massive but anonymous car bombs assassinate opponents, terrorize civilians and intimidate foreigners. Even kidnapping has returned as a political tactic.

It's dangerous to overemphasize historical parallels, but also useful to examine similarities--particularly at a time when senior U.S. officials, like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are arguing that Iraqis should take a greater role in securing their country. Many leading Iraqis want the Americans to hand over power altogether; they just don't agree on who or what should replace them. Rival groups don't trust one another. And many want to form their own militias--not in order to fight any other group, they insist, but for self-defense.

How U.S. forces deal with nascent militias may well determine the future of the country. Already the Coalition has worked with local fighters--in part because they depend on Iraqis for intelligence. U.S. Special Forces cooperated closely with Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas, some 70,000 strong, during the invasion. And the Iraqi National Congress still maintains an armed force, composed mainly of glorified bodyguards, but which conducts its own operations and detentions. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was based in Iran before the war, has a 15,000-man militia called the Badr Brigades. The militiamen had been keeping a low profile until the assassination of SCIRI's leader, Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir al Hakim, in a massive car bombing at a sacred shrine in Najaf last month. Then it was the Badr Brigades that took over security at the shrine and in much of the city. That in turn prompted the U.S. commander in Najaf to issue a warning last week that militias there had to disband by Friday. He was only partially obeyed. "How many ayatollahs can we sacrifice?" says Adel Abdul Mehdi, political-bureau head of SCIRI. "We have to ensure our own security."

More worrisome still are the armed followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical young scion of a rival family of Shiite leaders who has built a small but vocal following in the Shiite slums of Baghdad. "We have guns not to attack people but to protect ourselves and our leaders," al-Sadr said in a rare inter-view last Monday with a small group of journalists. "That's our right." Al-Sadr's followers vowed to defy the American order to disband. But when the deadline approached, al-Sadr's group avoided a confrontation by staying mostly out of sight.

If Iraq does become the new Lebanon, it could make the old one seem tame. "It's an even uglier potential than you had in Lebanon because so much more is at stake," says Yahya Sadowski, an American political scientist who lived in Beirut through much of the war. "You could run a nightmare scenario where Iraq is the Congo of the Middle East, militias all coming in from neighboring countries," he says. Yet precisely because so much is at stake, Sadowski doesn't think it will come to that. America can't afford to pack up and leave, as it did in Beirut after a suicide bomber hit the Marine barracks in 1983, killing 241 Americans.

Israel's bloody history in Lebanon is even more instructive. The Israeli occupation of the south was initially welcomed by the disenfranchised Shiites. But with time, it was the Shiites under Hizbullah leadership who eventually drove them out (after 17 years). Uri Lubrani, who was Israel's main policymaker on Lebanon, believes that the Shiite majority in Iraq--representing 60 percent of the population--could give the country stability that Lebanon never had. But he also envisages their turning on their occupiers, and he suspects that Iran will try to foment that: "Their strategy might be to have as many Americans sent back in body bags during the election period as possible." As Lubrani and the Israelis found in their own occupation, today's friends can easily become tomorrow's enemies.