By Senior investigative producer
NBC News
updated 5/22/2007 7:37:02 PM ET 2007-05-22T23:37:02

The Lebanese government has asked the U.S. to consider immediate military assistance to support the Lebanese Army as they battle al-Qaida linked forces in Northern Lebanon, the State Department said today, but it’s not as if the United States has been stingy with military assistance during the Bush Administration.

William Hartung, an arms researcher with the New School in New York, says that even without any new assistance, the U.S. has provided the Lebanese government with $885.5 million in assistance of all kinds.  More than  $313 million of that was for military aid, known as Foreign Military Financing, with an additional $5.5 million for military training, International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds.

“Almost two-thirds of the $885.5 million came from the fiscal year 2007 supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan, $585.5 million in all. This includes $300 million in military aid, the vast bulk of the $313.3 million received for the entire period of 2001 to 2008,” Hartung noted.  “So aside from a steady flow of Economic Support Funds (averaging about $35 million a year throughout the period), Lebanon had been virtually ignored on the aid front until after the Israeli conflict in 2006.”

The Lebanese have spent the money on small arms, ammunition, Humvees, five-ton trucks, vehicle repair parts, small-arm repair parts, individual soldier equipment, protective vests, helmets and boots, as well as repair on equipment, helicopters and land vehicles, according to the State Department.

“It’s all fighting equipment,” said Hartung. “It’s not for display.”

The most recent request comes as the Lebanese army is bombing and battling Fatah al-Islam, described as linked to al-Qaida, although U.S. intelligence is not certain just how strong those links are.  Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, would not detail what was in the request, but said it was similar to what the U.S. government has provided in the past.

“They have a request in, and we’re going to take a look at it,” he said.

Hartung says providing so much military assistance to a volatile, even unstable country, could be counterproductive.
“You’re going to tear apart Lebanon,” said Hartung, director of arms sales monitoring at the New School’s World Policy Institute. “You never know where this will wind up.
“Some will fall into the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas. Some will fall into the hands of al-Qaida. There is enough weaponry in these requests to keep a civil war going for years.”

Hartung says the U.S. has been pumping arms into Lebanon for the past two years, as Israel has battled Hezbollah, catching the Lebanese army in the middle. 

The U.S. also helps to train the Lebanese Armed Forces. The aid has traditionally gone toward efforts to control the Southern Lebanese border where Hezbollah operates. The increase in aid in the supplemental is meant to help Lebanon recover after the war there last summer.

“The Lebanese Armed Forces are engaged in a tough fight against a brutal group of violent extremists that have embedded themselves in this Palestinian refugee camp,” McCormack said.

Not everyone agrees that Fatah al-Islam is as big a threat as the Lebanese suggest. Senior U.S. intelligence officials say that while the Lebanese group Fatah al-Islam does have “some links to al-Qaida” they are links to al-Qaida in Iraq, not the al-Qaida central, as the intelligence community refers to the group run by Osama bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

“We are talking about al-Qaida once removed,” said one official of the group fighting Lebanese security forces in Tripoli.

The official also said it is “hard to tell what the links are” other than its leader, Shaker al-Absi, did work with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and is believed to have played “some role” in the killing of U.S. diplomat Thomas Foley in Amman three years ago.

“In spite of what they have told the New York Times about their desire to attack the west and the U.S., their aspirations exceed their operational capabilities,” said the same official. “Al-Absi is a bad actor, but he is not part of the al-Qaida core and he likes sounding off, but the guiding principle of Fatah al-Islam is not global jihad but Israel.”

NBC Producer Elizabeth Leist contributed to this report.

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