Ill-equipped, overstretched, and largely untested, the Lebanese Army faces a formidable challenge as it presses ahead with an air, sea, and land assault against a band of several hundred militants besieged in this Palestinian refugee camp.
Amid the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 16-year civil war ended in 1990, the Lebanese Army on Friday launched a major offensive against the militants to crush them once and for all.
But the troops face an enemy whose leaders have sworn to fight to the death. The battle represents the first big test for the Lebanese Army since Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon two years ago.
"The Lebanese Army was accused of doing nothing during last summer's war [between Hizbullah and Israel], and they can't afford to be accused of the same thing again. I think that's very much at the back of their mind," says Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based consultant on Middle East security affairs who was a longtime United Nations peacekeeper in south Lebanon.
Military diplomats in Beirut say the special forces are highly motivated and take training seriously. But unlike many of the militants, who have fought American troops in Iraq, the Lebanese have had little combat experience.
To help the Lebanese government crush the militants, the US – which has increased its military aid to Lebanon sevenfold in the last year – and some Gulf countries last week flew in planeloads of equipment, thought to include additional ammunition, night-vision goggles, and antitank missiles.
Prime minister calls for surrender
The fighting began two weeks ago when Fatah al-Islam militants attacked and overran Army positions surrounding the Nahr al-Bared camp. At least 10 soldiers were killed, some of them decapitated.
Troop reinforcements were rushed to the camp and the Army positions were quickly retaken. An intermittent cease-fire in the following days allowed two-thirds of the camp's population of around 40,000 to flee. UN workers responsible for the Palestinians' welfare estimate that some 5,000 to 8,000 refugees remain.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora warned the militants to surrender or be killed, calling them a "terrorist gang." He said that any militant who surrenders would receive a fair trial.
But Abu Hurreira, a Lebanese and spokesman for Fatah al-Islam, told the Associated Press that they would fight to the death. "Let them come; we are ready," he said by phone from inside the camp, a small coastal area of densely packed three- or four-story buildings separated by narrow alleyways.
The special forces troops inching into the camp, driving the militants back into their stronghold, face an unusual array of deadly booby traps, including roadside bombs, car bombs, bottles of propane gas rigged together, and even donkeys and dogs fitted with explosives and sent toward Army lines. Seven soldiers were killed on the first two days of the offensive. The number of casualties among Fatah al-Islam and civilians inside the camp is unknown.
"Fighting in built-up areas is an art form and the Lebanese Army has no real experience [in] it," says a Western Army officer working with a UN agency in Beirut.
But Nizar Abdel-Kader, a retired general in the Lebanese Army and military analyst, says that the Lebanese special forces are among the best-trained troops in the Middle East and are capable of fighting even in the cramped confines of the camp.
He adds, however, that it will not be a quick job. "You only need to look at the configuration of the camp – with its alleys and connected houses – to see how difficult the mission is," he says. "They need to take their time, move slowly and smoothly to save lives."
US military aid spikes sevenfold
The US is spearheading an international effort to upgrade and modernize the Lebanese Army. Last year, Washington allocated Lebanon $40 million in military aid, and this year the figure has soared to $280 million.
Although the Lebanese Army has a large amount of equipment for a small Army of some 45,000 (augmented in the past year by 15,000 reservists), most of it is obsolete or unusable. Furthermore, the Army's manpower is stretched to the limit with 20,000 troops deployed along the Lebanese-Israeli border after last summer's war, another 8,000 policing the porous border with Syria and thousands more maintaining security in Beirut.
The Lebanese Air Force has no operational fixed-wing aircraft and relies instead on Vietnam war-era UH-1 transport helicopters and several Gazelle attack helicopters recently donated from surplus stock in the United Arab Emirates' military. The French-built Gazelle helicopters were used to attack Fatah al-Islam positions on Saturday in the first air operations by the Lebanese military since 1983.
The Army's tanks date from the 1950s and are vulnerable to the rocket-propelled grenades fired by Fatah al-Islam militants. Most of the tanks at Nahr al-Bared are dug in behind earthen embankments and used as stationary artillery guns to pound positions held by the militants.
Although some equipment from international donors has been promised, including German-made Leopard tanks from Belgium, the most pressing need, analysts say, is for logistical and communications equipment.
"They don't even have proper radios. The officers are running this war by communicating with cellphones," Mr Goksel says.
Lebanese soldiers determined
Still, the spirit to fight appears strong. Soldiers manning frontline positions say they are determined to finish off Fatah al-Islam.
"We will kill them if they don't surrender. The fighting will be difficult, but we will win, be assured of that," says a special-forces captain.
The camp echoed Sunday with the near-constant rattle of heavy machine guns and rifles, punctuated every few seconds by thunderous blasts from exploding tank rounds. The plain concrete four-story buildings at the edge of the camp were pitted with holes from tanks shells and spattered by hundreds of bullet holes. Tiny flashes of light peppered walls of buildings marking the impact of explosive-tipped machine gun rounds fired by Lebanese troops. Thick coils of black smoke from burning buildings rose into the air. Some buildings were so badly damaged, they seemed to defy gravity by still standing. Tiny beads of orange light from rocket-propelled grenades floated lazily across the smoking rooftops before exploding in a dirty gray cloud of dust and smoke. One half-built five-story building was struck repeatedly with tank shells within a few seconds and collapsed in a huge cloud of dust and a deafening roar.
The attacking troops appeared to be slicing pockets of territory one at a time, forcing the Fatah al-Islam militants to retreat into the heart of the camp where the buildings are jammed against each other so tightly that sunlight rarely penetrates the tiny passageways in between.
But it promises to be an even tougher battle than the Army initially believed.
"We thought this might take two or three days, but I think it's going to be more like a week," says an Army officer in the Lebanese ministry of defense. Full HTML version of this story which may include photos, graphics, and related links