Joy at freedom from Saddam Hussein should not be interpreted as joy for a US presence in Iraq, more a temporary gratitude to the United States for removing him. The US has toppled a president it supported throughout the 1980s, and weakened with sanctions throughout the 1990s when the majority of the population depended on the government for the few resources available.

 

Today’s reports of joyful tears, flowers and rice, may be tomorrow’s tears of sorrow. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Smashing a potential threat, installing a new government and initially receiving support from the Shia in the south is not only a description of today’s invasion, it’s a description of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

 

It took 22 years for Israel to leave Lebanon. Locals remember how rice and flowers were initially thrown at the invading tanks then too. But the ambitious invasion that met with initial success, turned into a political and military disaster.

 

An Iraqi civilian vents
his anger at a US
soldier: sign of things
to come ?

Like Iraq, Lebanon was a fragmented society with the constant possibility of civil war. Like Iraq, Lebanon was formed at the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and handed over to a western colonial power – Lebanon went to the French, Iraq to the British.

 

The French selected the Christians to form a ruling minority elite, creating deep divisions between them and the Druze, Sunni and Shia communities. The British selected the minority Sunnis to rule in Iraq, even putting down Kurdish rebellions with chemical weapons.

 

Ending terrorism was the cry of the Israelis in Beirut, when Palestinian resistance established what amounted to a state within a state near Israel’s border. Ending terrorism is also the cry of the United States and the United Kingdom, when a president they supported for over 14 years could no longer be controlled.

 

Lebanese Christians pushed for Tel Aviv's help from the mid-1970s, but the Labour-led Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin was not interested in invasion. Menachem Begin, with Ariel Sharon for a defence minister, was more favourably inclined. Iraqi exiles pushed for US support in the mid-1990's but the Democrat-led government of Bill Clinton was not interested in invasion. George Bush junior, with Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz for a defence team, proved more pliable.

 

When a Palestinian activist shot Israel’s London ambassador in 1982, it gave Begin the excuse he needed to move on Lebanon despite the fact that the assassin belonged to a group with no connection to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. When the two towers were obliterated in New York, the invasion of Iraq was similarly ensured despite the fact that no connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Ladin has ever been made.

 

The situation deteriorated for Israel when it started to meddle in Lebanese politics, engineering the election of Christian Bashir Gemayel – who was dead within a week. It remains to be seen how the United States plans to involve itself in internal Iraqi politics – but the hope must be that they won’t impose their will, place the cost of this war on Iraq’s shoulders, exploit reconstruction in US favour, or use Iraq to sabre-rattle with Syria or Iran.

 

Lebanon showed that ethnic resentments can be provoked into violent outbursts quickly and the risk is just as great in Iraq – with Kurdish militias, Turkish troops, armed Islamic groups, an oppressed Shia majority and a Sunni minority that has just lost its power. Patience will be short, while the expectations for a rapid improvement will be sky-high.

 

Blair and Bush have both promised that their forces will not remain one day more than necessary. They will do well to heed the experience of Yoni Fighel, a colonel in the Israeli reserves who served as an intelligence officer in the invasion of Lebanon and later in the West Bank:

 

As an old Lebanese man said to an Israeli soldier, after thanking him for freeing the south from Palestinian control, 'don’t forget to leave'."