Fatah al Islam Nahr El-Bared fighters: U.S. protégé? The U.S.

has been covertly backing Fatah al-Islam to counter Iran & Hezbollah, but this policy backfired, says investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. By Karima Saifullah Yesterday the Western-backed Lebanese government threatened Fatah al-Islam, the group that has been engaged in heavy clashes with Lebanese troops since Sunday, to surrender or face further military action. The warning came after the army laid siege to Nahr El-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp where the rebels are based. More than 80 people, including soldiers, rebels and civilians, have been killed and dozens more wounded in what is being described as Lebanon’s deadliest internal conflict since the civil war ended 17 years ago. On Wednesday, a brief lull in violence enabled thousands of Palestinian refugees to flee the besieged camp. Some headed for a nearby Palestinian refugee camp, while others travelled to the neighboring city of Tripoli. But renewed clashes at the camp raised fears over the fate of thousands of refugees still trapped inside. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, only 15,000 of the 40,000 refugees living in Nahr El-Bared left. Today two transport planes carrying American military aid for the Lebanese army arrived at Beirut airport. Although U.S. officials claim that the aid had been agreed to before the fighting began, the speedy shipment marked the first tangible U.S. backing of the Lebanese authorities' fight against Fatah al-Islam. Lebanese authorities allegedly accuse Fatah al-Islam of having links to al-Qaeda and the Syrian government, which they claim is using the rebel group as a tool to derail efforts to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, which has been blamed on Damascus by an uncompleted UN probe. Syria denies all the charges, and, along with all Palestinian parties, distanced itself from Fatah al-Islam. According to the U.S. investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, there’s another theory of who is really supporting the group: the Lebanese government itself, along with the United States. Last March, Hersh reported in the New Yorker that the U.S. and Saudi governments are covertly supporting Sunni groups like Fatah al-Islam as part of a policy against Iran and growing Shia influence in the Middle East. In a recent interview with CNN International's “Your World Today”, Hersh also said groups like Fatah al-Islam are the result of Washington's underground policies. He said an agreement between the U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, stipulated that the Saudi regime “covertly fund the Sunni Fatah al-Islam” as a counterweight to the Lebanon’s Shia resistance movement Hezbollah. “This was a covert operation that [Prince] Bandar ran with us,” the investigative reporter said. Accusing the White House of “no longer acting rationally,” Hersh said: “We're in the business of supporting the Sunnis anywhere we can against the Shia… We're in the business of creating ... sectarian violence." The support to Fatah al-Islam was given “to stop the spread of the Shia world”, Hersh said, adding that this policy has backfired. He also noted that when he was in Beirut, he talked to officials who admitted that they tolerated Fatah al-Islam as a “protection” against Hezbollah. Below is a transcript of a Democracy Now! interview with Seymour Hersh. SEYMOUR HERSH: Good morning. AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what you learned? SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, very simply -- this is over the winter -- the government made -- I think the article is called “The Redirection.” There was a major change of policy by the United States government, essentially, which was that we were going to -- the American government would join with the Brits and other Western allies and with what we call the moderate Sunni governments -that is, the governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- and join with them and with Israel to fight the Shia. One of the major goals for America, of course, was the obsession the Bush White House has with Iran, and the other obsession they have is, of course -- is in fear -- is of Hezbollah, that is so dominant in southern Lebanon -- and whose leader Hassan Nasrallah wants to play a bigger political role and is doing quite a bit to get there and is in direct confrontation with (Lebanese Prime Minister Fuoad) Siniora. And so, you have a situation where the Sunni government, pretty much in control now, the American-supported Sunni government headed by Fouad Siniora, who was a deputy or an aide to Rafiq Hariri, the slain leader of Lebanon. And so, the goal -- part of the goal in Lebanon, part of the way this policy played out, was, with Saudi help, Prince Bandar -- if you remember him -- we remember Prince Bandar, the Saudi prince, as a

major player in Iran-Contra and also in the American effort two decades ago -- if you remember, we supported Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan against the Russians, and that didn’t work out so well. Well, we run right back to the well again, and we began supporting some of these groups, and particularly -- in the article, I did name Fatah al-Islam. The idea was to provide them with some arms and some money and some basic equipment so -these are small units, a couple hundred people. There were three or four around the country given the same help covertly, the goal being they would be potential enemies of Hezbollah in case of warfare; in case Nasrallah decided to do something physical, get kinetic, in Lebanon, the Sunni Siniora government would have some very tough guys on its side, period. That’s the policy. JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Sy Hersh, if that is true, then what has led to the current fighting now? If the Lebanese government had been backing the group, why is it now attacking it? SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, first of all, the Lebanese army is very distinct. Let me begin by saying nobody really knows anything right now. I mean, there’s a lot -- one of the things about crises is you learn that you really get to play much later. But based on common sense and what I’m reading, the Lebanese army has maintained an amazing sort of neutrality, which is surprising. The army has not been a pawn of the Siniora government. As you know, the American government -- the American position right now -- there’s a stand-off politically. You cannot discuss what’s going on without discussing the overall politics. There’s a stand-off politically right now, a very serious one, in Lebanon. The government is polarized. The government in power really has no legal basis to make any changes in cabinet positions, etc., because it’s not a constitutional government, because Hezbollah, which had five members of the parliament -- five members of the cabinet and a dozen or so members in the parliament, Hezbollah pulled out months ago. And there were street protests, protests against Siniora. And right now, you have Hezbollah in league with a Christian leader named Aoun, a former chief of staff for the army. Aoun and Nasrallah are in an amazing partnership against the Siniora government. And where this breaks down and who’s going to win this stand-off -- it’s been going on since last December -- isn’t clear. America clearly supports Siniora. But there’s a big brutal fight going. And the Lebanese army stayed out of it and was pretty much, very much, independent, in the sense that when there were street demonstrations, they did not beat up on the Nasrallah people. They were very impartial. So I think the story that we have is that there was a crime, and they were chasing people into one of the Palestinian camps. God knows the Palestinians are the end of the stick, not only for the West, but also for the Arab world. Nobody pays much attention to them and those places. I’ve been to Tripoli and been into the camps, and they are seething, as they should be. You know, rational people don’t like being mistreated. And in any case, so what you have is, what seems to me, just a series -- the word you could use is “unintended consequences.” I don’t think anybody in the Siniora government anticipated that the people they were covertly supporting to some degree -- I got an email the other day, and I have not checked this out, from somebody who was in the community, in the intelligence community and still consults with the community, he says, “Why don’t we ask more about the American arms that the fighters of Fatah al-Islam have, are brandishing?” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I did get that email. And so, that could be true. Both Saudi money and American money, not directly, but indirectly, was fed into these groups. And what is the laugh riot and the reason I’m actually talking to you guys about this -- I usually don’t like to do interviews unless I have a story in The New Yorker -- the reason I’m talking about it is because the American government keeps on putting out this story that Syria is behind the Fatah group, which is just beyond belief. There’s no way -- it may be possible, but the chances of it are very slight, simply because Syria is a very big supporter, obviously, of Nasrallah, and Bashar alAssad has told me that he... has great respect for Nasrallah. The idea that the Syrians would be sponsoring groups whose sole mission is to kill those... who don’t support their view..., that’s basically one of the crazy aspects of all this, and it’s just inconceivable. Nothing can be ruled out, but that doesn’t make much case, and I noticed that in the papers today there’s fewer and fewer references to this. The newspapers in America are beginning to wise up, that this can’t be -- this isn’t very logical. The White House is putting it out hot and heavy as part of the anti-Syria campaign, but it’s not flying, because it doesn’t make sense. So there we are. It’s another mess. AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, what about the role of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams? SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you always -- any time you have violent anti-Iran policy and anti-Shia policy, you have to start looking there. Look, clearly this president is deeply involved in this, too, but what I hear from my people, of course, the players -- it’s always Cheney, Cheney. Cheney meets with Bush at least once a week. They have a lunch. They usually have a scheduled lunch. And out of that comes a lot of big decisions. We don’t know what’s ever said at that meeting. And this is -- talk about being opaque, this is a government that is so hidden from us. So I can’t -- I can tell you that -- you know, the thing that’s amazing about this government, the thing that’s really spectacular, is even now how they can get their way mostly with a lot of the American press. For example, I do know -- and, you know, you have to take it on face value. If you’ve been reading me for a long time, you know a lot of the things I write are true or come out to be more

or less true. I do know that within the last month, maybe four, four-and-a-half weeks ago, they made a decision that because of the totally dwindling support for the war in Iraq, we go back to the alQaeda card, and we start talking about al-Qaeda. And the next thing you know, right after that, Bush went to the Southern Command -- this was a month ago -- and talked, mentioned al-Qaeda twentyseven times in his speech. He did so just the other day this week -- al-Qaeda this, al-Qaeda that. AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist, writes for The New Yorker magazine, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.