THE rugged hills and harsh ravines of this remote and usually
forgotten area seem far away from the troubles of the Middle East.
But most of the region's major players - including Israel, the
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Syria, and Iran - are
embroiled in the obscure and explosive struggle between rival
Lebanese Shiite factions. It is a contest that has turned many local
and regional alliances inside out.
Columns of smoke rise every day over Jarjoua, as the battle rages
for control of the ridge-top village currently at the center of the
struggle. It was captured July 16 by fighters from the radical,
Iranian-backed Hizbullah, who have driven back repeated
counterattacks by Amal, the moderate, Syrian-supported Shiite group.
At least 135 people are reported killed in this latest round of
conflict between the rival Shiite groups. Villages for miles around
have been hit by shellfire, triggering a mass exodus of virtually
all but the fighters.
Amal sources admit that their efforts to dislodge Hizbullah from
Jarjoua have been joined on the ground by fighters from the
Syrian-oriented Baath Party and from the Syrian Social Nationalist
Party, another Damascus-linked Lebanese group.
These Syrian-backed factions thus find themselves colliding
directly with Iran's radical Lebanese acolytes - despite the
long-standing alliance between Damascus and Tehran. This, and the
failure so far of Iran and Syria to mount a coordinated effort to
settle the conflict between their respective Lebanese allies, has
renewed speculation that Tehran and Damascus may be drifting apart -
especially given the recent visit to Egypt by Syria's President
If one alliance is under question, the fighting has produced at
least a quasi-alliance from an old enmity. Amal, which was for
several years locked in a deadly struggle with the Palestinians in
Lebanon, is undoubtedly the beneficiary of an attempt by PLO
guerrilla forces from Yasser Arafat's Fatah group to step in and
stop the inter-Shiite carnage.
Fatah forces first intervened in the area in January to head off
a Hizbullah thrust westward. That intervention succeeded in
containing the conflict, but did not defuse it. Now Fatah guerrillas
have moved up deeper into the Iklim al-Tuffah hills, intercepting
what Palestinian and Amal officials say was a Hizbullah attempt to
drive south toward Nabatiyeh, the regional center.
But this time, the conflict has not been contained, and the
Palestinians have found it harder to portray their involvement as