Patrick Cockburn: Two decades on, US and Britain risk repeat of fiasco

There is no reason why a multinational force will not face the same fate as in 1982

The Independent

Published: 29 July 2006

The arrival of the multinational force in Lebanon in 1982 brought with it a train of disasters. I still recall that great concrete sandwich near the airport that was all that remained of the US barracks in which 241 Marines died after it was hit by a suicide bomber on 23 October 1983. Elsewhere in Beirut, 58 French paratroopers were entombed when the building in which they were living was rammed by a second vehicle packed with explosives.

There is no reason why a multinational force landing in Lebanon in 2006 will not face the same dangers, and possibly suffer the same disasters, as 24 years ago. Its arrival will be opposed wholly by the Shia community, 40 per cent of the population, since the force will be seen as the creature of the US, which has so wholly supported the Israeli onslaught.

A multinational force is also likely to reopen the never entirely healed wounds of the Lebanese civil war because some Lebanese - mostly Christian - may support it, and others - mainly Muslim - will oppose it. It will not be considered neutral by the Lebanese, or the rest of the Arab world. It is extraordinary, given the fate of the so-called "coalition" in Iraq, of which the US and Britain are the only operative members, that any other country would now consider sending troops to Lebanon.

The record of the multinational force in Lebanon was futile, shameful and bloody by turns. Its first purpose was to cover the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organisation after the Israeli invasion, in which 20,000 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, were to die. There were US Marines, French paratroopers, Italian soldiers and a British contingent who pulled back to ships offshore after the PLO had withdrawn. Their mission appeared over.

In fact, it had scarcely begun. On 14 September 1982 the newly-elected Lebanese President, Bashir Gemayel, was addressing a meeting of his party faithful in Christian east Beirut when he was killed by a bomb. On 16-18 September Israeli forces allowed Lebanese Christian militias into the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps where they butchered men, women and children. I remember the sweet smell of the rotting bodies when I walked through the camps a day later.

President Ronald Reagan sent a new contingent of 1,800 Marines to Beirut, joined by 1,500 French Foreign Legion paratroopers, 1,400 Italian troops and, a few months later, a smaller British force. It was officially neutral, but meant to support the Lebanese government under President Amin Gemayel, who was allied with the US and Israel. But the Lebanese government was seen as Christian-dominated by many. On 18 April 1983, a suicide bomber destroyed the US embassy in Beirut. In May the Israelis withdrew from around the capital.

When Druze fighters drove the Lebanese army out of the mountains it was supported by gunfire from US vessels offshore and American aircraft. The US was deemed to have joined the Lebanese war on the side of the Christians and Israel's allies. Retaliation came when the US Marines and French paratroopers were slaughtered. The US blamed Hizbollah, Syria and Iran for the suicide attacks. By December the US was attacking Syrian anti-aircraft positions in the Bekaa valley, but lost two planes shot down. In February 2004 President Reagan ordered the surviving US troops out of Lebanon.

A multinational force sent to Lebanon will be seen much as the US and British in Iraq. They will be fought as a new detachment of crusaders. The US is probably more unpopular than it has ever been across the Middle East. Even if there are no American troops in the new multinational force they will be seen as opening another front in the West's perceived war on Islam. They will be joining a war, not ending it.