The attack on a US embassy vehicle on 15 January that killed three Lebanese represents a dangerous expansion of political violence in the country to include international targets, and shows that al-Qaeda-inspired extremists are attempting to push the politically deadlocked country towards civil war, said analysts.
See photo slideshow of ruined Nahr al-Bared camp
"Al-Qaeda is now unleashed in Lebanon and they are here to stay," Ahmad Moussali, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, told IRIN. "Al-Qaeda thrives in civil war and chaos. International players should be very careful in Lebanon. It is a very tense situation and we are reaching a decisive time."
Lebanon has been without a president since 23 November in a year-long political crisis that has seen the Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah-led opposition attempting to bring down the Western-backed government.
The 15 January roadside bomb exploded in the Dawra area north of Beirut on a road regularly used by embassy vehicles travelling to and from the US embassy. The attack targeted an armoured car driven by a Lebanese employee of the US embassy, who escaped with minor injuries. Twenty-one others were injured.
The attack follows a resurgence of militant activity over the past month, which analysts say could push the political crisis into armed confrontation.
On 10 January, security forces arrested an alleged senior member of Fatah al-Islam, the Islamist militant group that lost a bloody 15-week battle against the army last summer in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, in Tripoli's Abu Samra neighbourhood, an area known as a stronghold of Sunni Islamist militancy.
The arrest came three days after a tape broadcast on a militant website in which Fatah al-Islam's fugitive leader Shaker al-Absi threatened to kill the army's Gen Michel Suleiman and his followers, accusing them of waging the Nahr al-Bared battle for political purposes, including appeasing the USA.
Gen Suleiman, who led the fight against Fatah al-Islam, has emerged as a consensus candidate for president.
Photo: Hugh Macleod/IRIN
|A Hezbollah poster in south Lebanon celebrates "divine victory" over Israel in the July 2006 war. Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin-Laden last month criticised Hezbollah for agreeing to the presence of UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon|
Absi's message followed a 29 December broadcast on a militant website by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden in which he criticized Hezbollah for agreeing to the deployment of UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon following the end of the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in August 2006. Bin-Laden said the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) were on a mission to "protect the Jews".
Analysts said the message would have been taken as a rallying call by militants in Lebanon.
"Bin-Laden's threats represent a kind of edict, guidelines which are adapted by groups that identify themselves with Al-Qaeda," said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
On 8 January, two Irish UN peacekeepers were slightly wounded when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Rmaileh village, 35km south of Beirut and not far from Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, a hotbed for Islamist militant groups.
It was the third attack on the 13,500-strong UNIFIL since it was expanded in line with Resolution 1701 that brought the 2006 war to an end.
Three Spanish and three Colombian UN soldiers were killed when a bomb destroyed their armoured troop carrier in the first attack, on 24 June last year.
Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
|UNIFIL was created to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security, and help the government of Lebanon restore its effective authority in the area|
In July, a bomb exploded near a UNIFIL position, causing no casualties. Lebanese authorities have charged six Palestinians, three of them in absentia, in relation to that blast.
In an interview at the UNIFIL base in Naqora, spokeswoman Yasmina Bouziane told IRIN the peacekeepers would not be deterred by the threats against them.
"Security for UNIFIL is paramount. But we will not change our patrolling and have taken measures to mitigate attacks. [UNIFIL Commander Claudio] Graziano recognises there are extremist groups who want to destabilise the south."
The latest attack against UNIFIL occurred hours after Israel said two rockets fired from Lebanon overnight had exploded in the northern border village of Shlomi, inflicting no casualties.
Several Palestinian militant groups have a presence in Lebanon and have at times launched attacks across the border. On 17 June, two Katyusha rockets were fired into northern Israel.
Saad Ghorayeb compared the 15 January attack with the latest attack on UNIFIL.
"Both were very clumsily planned and were not high value targets. It was an assassination attempt, but not along the lines of previous assassinations," she said, referring to a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon since the 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.
"It could well be an al-Qaeda-inspired attack. There has been a resurgence of sorts. Fatah al-Islam were always clumsy."
With the failure of French-led international diplomacy and most recently an Arab League initiative to mediate in Beirut's political crisis, analysts see security deteriorating further.
Photo: Hugh Macleod/IRIN
|Weapons are a way of life for the more than a dozen armed Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh|
"Both sides are not seriously contemplating a compromise," said Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. "The situation is one of suspended stalemate with regional players now simply playing a conflict management role until parliamentary elections," scheduled for the first half of next year.
Moussali of the American University of Beirut said there was a real possibility the opposition would escalate its campaign into civil disobedience.
"Certain areas of Beirut have been punished by the government by having electricity shortages and the threat of rising bread prices," he said, referring to the Hezbollah stronghold of the southern suburbs, where several protests have taken place over the past three months against power cuts.
"People are agitated and the opposition may well begin civil disobedience which could trigger actions and reactions that would make the situation difficult to contain."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions