Monday, November 19, 2007

Security forces bear down on Beirut for presidential election

Security forces bear down on Beirut for presidential election
Readiness likened to 'undeclared state of emergency'

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: More than 10,000 troops from Lebanon's various security forces have been brought into the capital to maintain order ahead of a uncertain parliamentary session called for Wednesday to elect a president. The force includes personnel from the Internal Security Forces (ISF), State Security and General Security, as well as a Lebanese Army brigade which arrived in Beirut late Saturday. A similar number of rapid-response troops will be on hand for support if needed, which could bring the total number of forces on the streets to 20,000, a security source said. From midnight on Sunday, army and security forces in Lebanon are on a state of heightened readiness, a security source told The Daily Star, in preparation for potential violence accompanying the presidential election. The precautions will remain in place "until the political situation stabilizes," the security source said. "This state of readiness means that all long vacations for army officers and men have been cancelled, all unmarried soldiers have been instructed to return to their units, while married soldiers are given 12-hour leaves to sleep at their homes only if they are close to their units," the source said.

The Beirut Marathon, which on Sunday lightened the tense mood, also served as a dry run for security forces to shut down many Beirut streets and helped conceal movements of army units into the capital, the source added. Saturday night and early Sunday morning were noisy for many Beirutis, as armored vehicles trundled into the capital. "A curfew or a state of emergency can only be declared by the entire Cabinet, not the interior minister as used to happen in the past," the source said, adding that the state of readiness is the closest the country can get to an "undeclared state of emergency." A meeting at the Interior Ministry for heads of security branches expected on Monday will discuss the latest developments, while Defense Minister Elias Murr and Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa will keep Premier Fouad Siniora updated on the latest developments so Siniora can make decisions quickly. The security source said that protection has been beefed up around the seat of the government, the Grand Serail, and around pivotal ministries and departments and the Banque du Liban. He said more troops could be called up from the South if the security situation in the capital deteriorates.

The army's response to shootings at the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp Friday, with troops positioning themselves at vital intersections soon after the incident, indicates the army will not sit idly by and watch the camps descend into chaos. "The camps are under constant observation. If anything happens that endangers security, the army will move in," the source said. The combined strength of army and security forces in the country totals about 90,000 troops, the sources said, with some 60,000 army, 15,000 ISF and 2,500 state security troops. How the army and security forces will respond to political developments is less certain, however, especially in the event a new president is not elected. One worry concerns which political authority the army troops and security forces would obey, whether the outgoing pro-Syrian president or the outgoing anti-Syrian government. The Constitution says that if the deadline passes for a new president to be elected without a new head of state, the Cabinet combined assumes presidential power and organizes a presidential election as soon as possible. "One possible scenario remains that Lebanese Armed Forces commander General Michel Suleiman heads a two-year, interim government and organizes fresh elections for the presidency and Parliament in that time," the source said, pointing out that while the scenario remains a last resort, Suleiman taking over could prove popular with the armed forces.

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