Islamist militants entrenched in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon are facing an ultimatum to surrender or face further military action. The Lebanese government accuses Fatah al-Islam of having ties with al-Qaeda and the Syrian government. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh joins us to talk about another theory of who is backing the militant group — the Lebanese government itself, along with the United States. Last March, Hersh reported the U.S. and Saudi governments are covertly backing militant Sunni groups like Fatah al-Islam as part of an overarching foreign policy against Iran and growing Shia influence. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Lebanon’s defense minister has said Islamist militants entrenched in a Palestinian refugee camp must surrender or face further military action. The ultimatum followed three days of fierce fighting between the army and the Fatah al-Islam group. The army has laid siege to the Nahr al-Bared camp since the fighting erupted on Sunday, bombarding it with tank fire and artillery shells. At least 80 people have died, with dozens more wounded.
On Wednesday, an informal ceasefire enabled thousands of residents to flee the camp. Some headed for another Palestinian refugee camp nearby, while others traveled to the neighboring city of Tripoli. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates between 13,000 and 15,000 refugees have left Nahr al-Bared. The camp is home to 30,000 people. The internal conflict is the bloodiest in Lebanon since the civil war ended 17 years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: The Lebanese government accuses Fatah al-Islam of having ties with al-Qaeda and the Syrian government. But there’s another theory of who’s backing the militant group: the Lebanese government itself, along with the United States. Last March, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine that the U.S. and Saudi governments are covertly backing militant Sunni groups like Fatah al-Islam as part of an overarching foreign policy against Iran and growing Shia influence.
Seymour Hersh joins us now on the phone from his home in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sy.
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, the Party of God, that is so dominant in — the Shia Party of God that’s so dominant in southern Lebanon that once — 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 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 Rafik Hariri, the slain leader of Lebanon, that government has — we know, the International Crisis Group reported a couple years ago that the son Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, who’s now a major player in the Parliament of Lebanon, he put up $40,000 bail to free four Sunni fundamentalists, Jihadist-Salafists — which you will — who were tied directly to — you know, this word "al-Qaeda" is sort of ridiculous — they were tied to jihadist groups. And God knows, al-Qaeda, in terms of Osama bin Laden, doesn’t have much to do with what we’re talking about. These are independently, more or less, you can call them, fanatical jihadists.
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 and other jihadists 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 jihadist 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 standoff politically. You cannot discuss what’s going on without discussing the overall politics. There’s a standoff 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 standoff — 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, which are always hotbeds. 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 al-Assad has told me that he’s in awe of Nasrallah, that he worships at his feet and has great respect for him. The idea that the Syrians would be sponsoring Sunni jihadist groups whose sole mission are to kill the apostates — that is, anybody who doesn’t support their view, the Wahhabi or Salafist view of Sunni religion — that includes the Shia — anybody who doesn’t believe — support these guys’ religions are apostates and are killable, 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.
You might think that one of the reasons — I think I wrote about this in The New Yorker — one of the things that the Saudi Bandar had promised us was that we can control the jihadists. We can control them, he assured us. Don’t worry about getting in bed with these bad guys, because, as we remember, the same kind of assurances were given to us in the late 1980s, when we supported, as I said, bin Laden and others in the war against Russia, the Mujahideen war, and that, of course, bit us on the ass. And this is, too. So there we are.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, what about the role of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Deputy National Security Adviser 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 al-Qaeda 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 27 times in his speech. He did so just the other day this week — al-Qaeda this, al-Qaeda that. All of a sudden, the poor Iraqi Sunnis, I mean, they can’t do anything without al-Qaeda. It’s only al-Qaeda that’s dropping the bombs and causing mayhem. It’s not the Sunni and Shia insurgents or militias. And this policy just gets picked up, although there’s absolutely no empirical basis. Most of the pros will tell you the foreign fighters are a couple percent, and then they’re sort of leaderless in the sense that there’s no overall direction of the various foreign fighters. You could call them al-Qaeda. You can also call them jihadists and Salafists that want to die fighting the Americans or the occupiers in Iraq and they come across the border. Whether this is — there’s no attempt to suggest there’s any significant coordination of these groups by bin Laden or anybody else, and the press just goes gaga. And so, they went gaga a little bit over the Syrian connection to the activities in Tripoli. It’s just amazing to me, you guys.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, writes for The New Yorker magazine, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.