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Lebanon's lessons for Iraq

The Lebanese Army's fight may be a model for Iraqis of how to unify a nation against terrorists.

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Iraq's future as an independent nation hangs heavily on the unity of its military. As its Army starts to operate without US support, will it become a cohesive, patriotic force whenever challenged by Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds – or Al Qaeda?

A similar challenge struck Lebanon's Army this week. It has been battling up to 200 Islamic militants in a Palestinian refugee camp near the Mediterranean city of Tripoli. Close to 100 people have been killed since Sunday. Whether the Lebanese people stay united behind the Army during this fight could provide a foretaste of what might happen in Iraq in the months and years ahead.

As in Iraq, Lebanon is riven by religious sects, sapped by war, pockmarked with Islamic radicals, and frozen with fear over difficult political choices. A weak government in Beirut faces a presidential election in September, creating a political stalemate in the interim. And its leaders are being intimidated by a bullying neighbor, Syria – as Iraq's various factions are by nearby Iran. Always ready to keep Lebanon under its thumb, Syria does not want the Beirut government to go along with a United Nations probe of Syria's suspected hand in the 2005 assassination of a popular Lebanese prime minister.

Lebanon's 60,000-strong Army – weak as it is and reflecting the crosscurrents of sectarian strains – still stands as a symbol of hope for national unity. It failed during the 1975-90 war. It began to become a national force only after the exit of Syria's troops two years ago. It did little during last summer's 34-day war between Israel and the Shiite Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. And after that war, it was tasked with the difficult job of helping UN forces stop the flow of arms to Hizbullah.

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