August 1, 2006


Hezbollah's former enemy now its public face (Mahmoud Tawil, 8/01/06, AP)

For Americans with long memories, [Nabih] Berri's role as intermediary for a dangerous Lebanese foe is familiar.

In 1985, he stepped from the shadows of Lebanon's civil war to negotiate with members of his Amal militia who hijacked TWA Flight 847, which was carrying 153 people. Before Berri intervened, the hijackers killed one passenger, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, and dumped the body on the tarmac at Beirut International Airport. The other passengers and crewmembers were released over 17 days. Berri's role in the TWA incident remains cloudy. He would not agree to USA TODAY interview requests.

Berri has pushed Amal into mainstream politics. U.S. diplomats renewed contact with him at least a decade ago, says Adib Farha, an adviser to former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Berri has been speaker of parliament — a job reserved for a Shiite under Lebanon's political system — since 1992. He is effectively one of three heads of state with the prime minister and president.

Theodore Kattouf, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, says, "The reason we deal with him is that we haven't tarred him with the terrorism brush and we need someone in the Shiite community that we can talk to."

It hasn't been without reservation, Farha says. "The U.S. won't ever forget that it was the Amal guerrillas who hijacked that plane and killed an innocent American. From the view of the American administration, Amal has blood on its hands," he says.

Berri is an odd partner for Hezbollah. As Amal chief during the civil war in 1975-91, he displayed a penchant for treachery and ruthlessness. He ordered Amal to turn its guns on many of its onetime allies: Christians, Druse, Sunnis and Palestinians. In 1988, his forces attacked Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon and Beirut's suburbs but failed to drive them out. The rival Shiite groups waged a two-year campaign of kidnappings and assassinations.

Berri "is not particularly trustworthy and never has been," says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in Lebanon during the 1980s and author of the book See No Evil, which inspired the movie Syriana. Baer says Berri is "pure warlord. He's corrupt. But if that's who you got to talk to, it's who you have."

Today, Amal and Hezbollah are nominally allied in the Lebanese parliament, although their supporters sporadically clash in gunfights and street brawls.

They compete for the loyalties of the country's largest religious group: 1.7 million Shiites, who make up about 44% of the population.

Uneasy allies

Hezbollah has advocated an Islamic republic modeled on Iran and devoted to the annihilation of Israel. It operates schools, hospitals and other services for poor Shiites who live in Beirut's southern slums and rural areas of the south and Bekaa Valley.

Amal is a secular patronage machine. In a 2005 report, Joe Faddoul, an economist at financial services firm BML Istisharat, alleged that Amal has been a major player in racketeering schemes that have skimmed up to $2 billion a year in government revenue. Amal and other parties have split revenue with Syria from various kickbacks, phone surcharges and taxes, price rigging and patronage, Faddoul's report said.

Hezbollah's ideological purity and social services have helped it eclipse Amal. The perception that Berri is a Syrian puppet has "led to a dramatic decline in support for Amal" among Lebanese Shiites, wrote Daniel Nassif in the newsletter Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.

Amal and Hezbollah "were greatly at odds," says John Kelly, former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. "Now they seem to have a tactical alliance."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 1, 2006 10:06 AM

Give hate a chance.

Posted by: John Resnick at August 1, 2006 10:41 AM

...and war.

Posted by: Rick T. at August 1, 2006 11:20 AM

We're the last folks who should denounce hate and war given our history.

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2006 12:32 PM

Realy? Dead LAST? huh.

Hate apparently unites these two factions. Curious to see where it takes them. If we're lucky, maybe we'll end up being the penultimate "folks who should denounce hate and war...."

Posted by: John Resnick at August 1, 2006 12:56 PM

It's a strategic advantage to be the LAST folks who give up on war. Easy pickin's.

Posted by: Rick T. at August 1, 2006 1:03 PM

We spend the most on war and are waging it globally on folks we hate. So, yes, LAST.

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2006 1:43 PM

We spend more on restraint than war. That's part of our problem. If we truly hated them, they'd all be dead already.

Posted by: John Resnick at August 1, 2006 2:46 PM

restraint? We starve them out just cause we don't like their leaders.

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2006 3:10 PM

Wow. I won't touch this one. Someone please send me a coded message naming those we starved out because we didn't like them.

Posted by: erp at August 1, 2006 3:58 PM

Ah, so it's indifference to "their" suffering [for which we are also to blame, obviously] that is worse than the required hatered that we must lack in order to destroy "them" efficiently? Perhaps we should go for the trifecta and be the last to denounce indifference too.

Posted by: John Resnick at August 1, 2006 4:03 PM


The North Koreans, Iraqis...

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2006 4:13 PM

John: I'd love to help you out, bro, but I've got to run for dinner with my mom and then drive home.

Also, I more or less agree with OJ. We love war and when we try to avoid it, we do more harm then good.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 1, 2006 5:11 PM

Sorry, oj, I can't decode your message.

Posted by: erp at August 1, 2006 5:48 PM

600,000 Iraqi children died while we maintained sanctions on Saddam and the Norks eat grass.

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2006 6:10 PM

Wait. I get so confused here. So, it's our history of AVOIDING war we should be ashamed of and denounce, not our love of it? That and our propensity to free people we supposedly [should?] hate?

My original comment was far too obtuse. In terms of the GWOT, I find the motivation that makes formerly-estranged factions [Amal and Hezbollah] suddenly allies an interesting contrast to that of, say, the US and the UK for example. But perhaps that's just too glib. They hate us so we should just hate them back and annihilate them.

But, alas, we don't so we won't.

Posted by: John Resnick at August 1, 2006 6:38 PM

No, we're always at war, but, for instance, at the moment we should be ashamed for not doing North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, China and Burma. Of course, we'll get to them eventually....

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2006 6:47 PM

John: Which nation isn't better off for having been on the wrong side of the US military? I can only come up with Haiti, and they're not so much worse off as uneffected.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 1, 2006 10:51 PM

Cuba, North Korea...

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2006 10:56 PM

Cuba? Clearly not. We freed Cuba from the Spanish and they were both better off. The Bay of Pigs was not the American military.

North Korea? Maybe, although like Haiti I think they've just been treading water. Of course, the Korean war is when we started to care about international opinion, limits set by the UN and accepting less than full victory.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 2, 2006 12:14 AM

Don't be silly. The Bay of Pigs the Missile Crisis and the embargo are all our military operations. Admittedly, were we to intervene now they'd be better for their encounter.

Tell the Arabs, Africans, Eastern Europeans, etc. that it started in Korea.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2006 12:19 AM

The Bay of Pigs was CIA, the embargo was never military, because it was only a domestic embargo. The missile crisis was a phony war, but Cuba was better off for it.

I'm not sure what you mean by the Arabs and Africans. The eastern Europeans are not relevent. We crushed Germany and Japan, our only enemies in that particular war.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 2, 2006 10:17 AM

Ah, so you're limiting military to just personal encounters with our Army or something?

Obviously Cuba would have been better off had we regime changed them at those opportunities, but we failed to do so.

We left the imperialists in control of the Arabs and Africans rather than finish WWI. We left Eastern Europe to the Communists rather than finish WWII. We never finish up our military encounters and folks suffer because of it.

That's just the nature pof democracy--we start wars because they're fun but they can't hold our interest for long.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2006 10:28 AM