BAALBEK, LEBANON, July 2004
Twenty years ago another Middle Eastern country was ravaged by the sort of factional civil war which many now could grip Iraq. But now – Lebanon holds regular elections that changes leaders – yet it is the home turf for one of the most successful and violent Islamic militias – the Hizbolah – blamed by America blames for suicide bombings, kidnappings and links to Iran.
Just before leaving for the Lebanon, I found myself having dinner in London, sitting next to someone from an ever growing industry known as anti-terror and political risk consulting. I mentioned that I was off to Beirut. It piqued his curiosity. ‘Why,’ he asked.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I want to try and see the Hizbollah and find out what they’re up to.’
A sympathetic, but knowing smile appeared on his face. ‘Wouldn’t we all?’ he said, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, as if I had just declared that I was off to search for the grail.
A couple of days later, I was standing on a dusty roadside, looking down on the biggest complex of Roman temples ever built. Dedicated to Bacchus, Jupiter and Venus in the second and third centuries before either Christianity or Islam had really taken grip. The ruins of huge columns soared skywards against a parched mountain range, dwarfing the minaret from a near-by Mosque.
This was the ancient city of Baalbek, stronghold of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, Hizbollah, or Party of God which is banned by the United States for being a terror group.
As we drove on, we got held up by a convoy of three tanks, loaded onto trucks, canvas flapping around their gun barrels, as they headed towards the Syrian border. After the Israeli invasion and American intervention in the 1980s, it was Syria – a neighboring Middle Eastern dictatorship, that finally brokered a truce in the Lebanese civil war and that peace more or less holds today. Much of the talk is that if Iraq is ever to settle again a similar deal will have to be struck with its now more stable neighbors, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Coming down into Baalbeck itself we passed a billboard of a half-naked youth and scantily clad woman advertising shampoo. On the walls of sun-washed buildings there were dog-eared posters of candidates for local elections held a few weeks ago and different billboards, this time of Islamic religious leaders from Hizbollah which had just won elections in a land slide.
We ended up on the lawn of a restaurant, where Dr Haj Hassan Hussein, the local Hizbollah MP had agreed to meet us. He was an earnest, stocky man in his forties, with huge spectacles, a crumpled suit and a weekend of stubble.
‘You want a beer?’ he said, signaling the waiter.
‘Yes, but, I thought…’ I began, trying to work out the how this movement which symbolizes itself with images of Ayotallahs and machine guns could offer alcohol over lunch.
He laughed. ‘Don’t worry. It’s non-alcoholic. From Iran. Try it. It’s very good.’
And it was.
I had actually come to try to get specific answers – denials or confirmations – on theories coming out of Washington. Before the Iraq war, the White House was happy for us to believe that Saddam Hussein and Al-Quaida were political allies. Now it links Al-Quaida to other Islamic militia’s like Hizbollah. 3.00 Among other accusations is that Hizbollah is helping the insurgents in Iraq.
‘Are you?’ I asked.
‘No,’ said Dr Hussein.
‘Are you giving money.’
‘Sending any people there?’
‘Do you have any links to Al Qaida?’
‘Al Quaida are our enemy. As much as America and Israel. We condemn the violence and we have said what happened in Saudi Arabia, the killing of the American hostage, that is wrong. It is terrorism. It is against Islam.’
Afterwards, I wandered around Baalbek’s central market. Hizbollah had been trounced in local elections held six years ago, but had now succeeded in winning again.
‘Do you think Hizbollah should get involved in Iraq and places like that,’ I asked a woman, buying fruit. ‘They had better not,’ she said. ‘We’ve got enough problems here. Just look at the drains and the pot holes in the road.’
Back in Beirut, I went to see the American ambassador, Vincent Battle.
‘We consider the Hizbollah to be a terrorist organization with a world wide reach,’ he said.
‘Still?’ I asked.
‘Still.’ Then, he paused. ‘Having said that, they do have members in parliament. They are part of the political process.’
My last visit to the Parliament building, where I bumped into Dr Hussein again. He was talking in the corridor to an MP from a rival party about rural policy, then round the corner came the formidable figure of Dr Bahia Hariri, the sister of the Prime Minister, and – politically – vehemently opposed to the policies of Hizbollah.
‘Are they terrorists,’ I asked.
She gave me a withering look. ‘Terrorists. No. Why ask such a question?’
‘Well the Americans say they are.’
She rolled her eyes in disdain as if bored with a child’s world of Alice in Wonderland and walked off.
Then, back in London, I found myself at a book launch talking to a frighteningly intelligent best-selling novelist. I mentioned I had just been in the Lebanon seeing the Hizbollah.
He took a step backwards. ‘My God. Weren’t you terrified they would kidnap you or something?’
I tried to explain, but it was a noisy room and half way through my attempt, he touched my elbow. ‘The thing about all these Al Qaida people,’ he began…
And I realized that in the global campaign of political image making, America was still winning hands down.