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Islamists seek to turn Lebanon into another Iraq - army chief ‘Radicals still a threat’

BEIRUT, Aug 12, (RTRS): Islamic State insurgents who seized a Lebanese border town this month planned to turn Lebanon into another Iraq by unleashing sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’ites that would have endangered the nation’s very existence, the army commander said. General Jean Kahwaji told Reuters that radical Islamists on the march in Iraq and Syria still posed a “great threat” to Lebanon, which was torn apart by a 1975-90 civil war and has been badly buffeted by the Syrian conflict. “The army hit them and continues to, smashing their plan,” said Kahwaji, 37 of whose soldiers were either killed or captured in the battle for the border town of Arsal. “But this does not mean that the story is over,” he said.

“They might think of another plan and try another time to cause Sunni-Shi’ite strife,” said Kahwaji, 60. The Aug 2 attack marked the most serious spillover to date of Syria’s three-year-old civil war into Lebanon and the first time a foreign invader has taken Lebanese territory since Israel entered the south during its 2006 war with Hezbollah. Battle-hardened in Syria, the insurgents were members of radical Sunni groups including the Islamic State, which has redrawn the borders of the Middle East by seizing territory in Syria and Iraq. The group’s advance has accelerated since it seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in June. Dozens of the militants were killed in Arsal during a five-day battle with the Lebanese army, according to army estimates.

The militants withdrew into the mountainous border zone last Thursday, taking with them 19 captive soldiers. Kahwaji, dressed in military fatigues, said the Islamists’ aim had been to turn the Sunni Muslim town of Arsal into a bridgehead from which to advance on surrounding Shi’ite villages, igniting a sectarian fire storm he said would have destroyed Lebanon. “The strife in Iraq would have moved to Lebanon — 100 percent,” said Kahwaji, a Maronite Christian. He said he was basing his assessment on the confessions of an Islamist commander whose detention on Aug 2 was the immediate trigger for the battle. The commander, Emad Gomaa, had been “fine tuning” the plan at the time of his arrest, Kahwaji said. Gomaa, 30, was a member of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the conflict, but had recently switched allegiance to the Islamic State. He had previously worked as a purveyor of dairy products, Kahwaji said. His confessions had led to the arrest of a number of militant cells in different parts of Lebanon, he added. “Would there have remained a state? It is a battle for the survival of the Lebanese entity,” Kahwaji said.

Tensions between Lebanese Shi’ites and Sunnis are already running high, exacerbated by the role played by the powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah fighting alongside President Bashar al- Assad’s forces in Syria. Lebanese Sunnis have broadly been supportive of the uprising against Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Lebanon is also now home to an estimated 1.6 million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunnis. Though its arsenal is more powerful than the Lebanese army’s, Hezbollah stayed out of the Arsal battle, wary of wider sectarian strife in a country already hit by suicide bombings, gun battles and rocket attacks linked to the Syrian war. The arrival of Islamic State fighters waving the group’s black flag on the northeastern border triggered panic in a country that is home to many religious groups at risk from a movement that has beheaded and crucified its opponents. Kahwaji said: “If the world and the people give up, then the black flag will arrive in Lebanon. But the people are with the army and they won’t let them arrive.”

The army has been crucial to holding the Lebanese state together since the civil war. It recruits from across the religious spectrum and is more widely trusted than other security agencies that have a more sectarian character. Outside Kahwaji’s office at the Ministry of Defence in the hills outside Beirut, where he spoke to Reuters this week, a cartoon shows a soldier carrying a map of Lebanon on his back.

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