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The Fog over the 1983 Beirut Attacks

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

24 Oct 2009 20:003 Comments
PostAttackH.jpg[ comment ] Friday marked the 26th anniversary of the bombing attacks on the U.S. Marines and French forces in Beirut, Lebanon. Two truckloads of explosives separately struck the buildings in which the Marines and French soldiers were housed, killing 299 servicemen, 241 of them American. The forces were part of the multinational force dispatched there during the Lebanese civil war. The attacks followed Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to expel fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organization who were launching attacks on Israel from Lebanon.

In his 1985 book, The Root: The Marines in Beirut, August 1982-February 1984, Eric Hammel gives the following account of that early morning. The headquarters of the 1st Battalion 8th Marines, under the command of the 2nd Marine Division, were at Beirut International Airport. A truck supposed to deliver water to the Marines, drove to the airport, turned onto an access road toward the Marines' headquarters, crashed through a fence, passed between two sentry posts, crashed through a gate, and finally drove into the lobby of the headquarters. The explosives went off, turning a four-story building into rubble.

About two minutes later, a similar attack took place against the barracks of France's 3rd Company of the 1st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The French forces were housed in the Ramlet al Baida area of West Beirut, about 6 km from the Marines headquarters. In this case, the suicide bomber drove his truck into the building's underground parking garage and detonated his bomb. The explosion leveled the eight-story building and killed 58 French soldiers.

To this date, no one can point to the true culprits with any great deal of certainty.

Iran may have had an indirect role in the attacks, but in my opinion, the evidence is not conclusive. If Iran played a role, it was in the context of the Iran-Iraq war. In the spring of 1982, Iranian forces had expelled Iraq's forces from most of the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, and in particular from Iran's largest port on the Persian Gulf, Khorramshahr, which had been occupied by Iraq since September 1980 when the war had started. Iran then tried to invade Iraq and occupy Basra, but was repulsed by Iraqi forces.

thomas1025.jpgThough the United States was officially neutral in this war, Iran believed it had provoked the war, and was angry about U.S. support for Iraq. The U.S. had blocked the UN Security Council from recognizing Iraq as the aggressor. It had refused to transfer to Iran the weapons that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had purchased from the United States and paid for. [The issue of the weapons remains unresolved.] At the same time, the U.S. had extended $2.5 billion in trade credit to Iraq.

In my opinion, the attacks were most likely the result of the anger of Lebanese Muslims, particularly that of Shiites, toward the United States and France. The poor neighborhoods of West Beirut and around the airport is where Muslims live, while most Shiites live in southern Lebanon, which had been occupied by Israel. The Lebanese Muslims viewed the U.S. and French forces not as peacekeepers in the Lebanese civil war, but just as a faction in the civil war supporting the Maronite Christians.

The U.S. forces, and particularly the Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, had repeatedly shelled the area in the Shouf mountains, a historic part of Lebanon in southeast Beirut, killing many innocent civilians. The mountainous area is a stronghold of the Druze forces, which was established by Kamal Jumblatt (1917-1977), and now under the command of his son Walid. They were allied with the Muslims. The elder Jumblatt, who was assassinated in 1977, had referred to Yasir Arafat in 1976 as "the most honorable fighter in the world." Add to this the massacre of the Palestinians in Shabra and Shatila and the brutal rule of Israel in southern Lebanon, and one gets an extremely volatile mixture of anger, resentment, and frustration that may be capable of committing any crime.

An unknown organization calling itself the Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the bombings. [This organization should not be confused with a small Palestinian group with the same name.] Some experts believe that the Islamic Jihad was the forefather of Hezbollah, or the initial cell that later expanded and became what is now known as the Lebanese Hezbollah.

There is however no consensus about when the Lebanese Hezbollah was actually formed. Some experts believe that Hezbollah already existed as an underground organization in 1982. Others believe that the Hezbollah was formed by supporters of Sheikh Ragheb Harb. He was a Shiite resistance leader in southern Lebanon and led an anti-Israeli resistance group against Israel's occupation of that region (that lasted until 2000). He was killed by Israeli agents on February 16, 1984.

In their 2006 book, Lightning out of Lebanon, Gregory T. (Tom) Diaz and Barbara Newman describe Hezbollah as a loose collection of Lebanese Shiite activists until late 1985. Hezbollah itself published its manifesto in February 1985, and considers that its official founding. It has always vehemently denied that it had any role in the attacks.

Due to close relations between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran, those who insist that Hezbollah already existed in 1982 or 1983 tend to also accuse the Islamic Republic of being behind the Beirut bombings. Iran did play a fundamental role in the formation of Hezbollah, particularly Ali Akbar Mohtashemipour, Iran's Ambassador to Syria at that time. As apparent in this video, he has always expressed pride in this. A letter bomb sent to him in 1984, blew off his right hand and two fingers on his left hand.

It is also true that with Syria's support, Iran began stationing military personnel from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the Beka Valley in Lebanon, beginning in late 1982 or early 1983, to train and organize the Shiites. The military advisors stayed there for several years, but had departed by 1989. Some of the present IRGC commanders, including Iran's Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, are veterans of Lebanon.

In 1985, a U.S. grand jury secretly indicted Imad Mughniyah (1962-2008) as the mastermind behind the bombing. He was a senior member of Hezbollah, and has been implicated in many terrorist operations. For example, he was indicted for the bombing of Israel's embassy in Argentina on March 17, 1992, which killed 29 people, and the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in July 1994, which killed 86 people. Mughniyah was never arrested. He was killed in Damascus by a car bomb on February 12, 2008.

It was recently reported that Robert Baer, a CIA agent in Beirut at that time, had concluded in 1987 that Iran, employing local Fatah proxies (not Hezbollah's operatives), was the key player behind the embassy bombing. But the CIA apparently did not accept the verdict, although Baer attributed that to the CIA not caring about "old stories."

In the fall of 2001, families of the 241 U.S. Marines who had been killed in the attacks filed a civil lawsuit against Iran seeking compensatory and punitive damages for their losses.The attorney for the victims' families presented as evidence a National Security Agency intercept that contained a message from Tehran to Mohtashemipour, Iran's ambassador to Syria. The presiding U.S. District Court Judge, Royce C. Lamberth, said that "the message directed the Iranian ambassador to contact Hussein Musawi, the leader of the Islamic Amal, and to instruct him to take a spectacular action against the United States Marines." Islamic Amal was a breakaway faction of the Amal Movement, the relatively moderate Shiite group in Lebanon, in the formation of which Iranians had played key roles in the mid-1970s, including Berkeley-educated Dr. Mostafa Chamran (1932-1981), Iran's Defense Minister immediately after the 1979 Revolution. He was killed during the Iran-Iraq war.

But Kenneth R. Timmerman, a well-known anti-Iran activist who has made a career out of aligning himself with Iranian exiles, made that interpretation, that the intercepted message was an order for the attacks. However, high-ranking US officials appear not to share Timmerman's view. That same year, President Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said that, "We still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport, and we certainly didn't then."

The two attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks and the French military followed the April 8, 1983, attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which murdered 63 people, which included 32 Lebanese employees of the embassy, 17 Americans, and 14 visitors and passersby. Eight of the dead Americans worked for the CIA and represented the entire CIA contingent in that region. In particular, the attack killed the CIA's top Middle East analyst and Near East director, Robert C. Ames.

The attack on the embassy had in turn followed the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, while Israeli forces encircled the camps. The massacre, led by the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, was carried out for two days, starting on Sept. 16, 1982. Up to 3500 refugees were murdered, most of whom were young children and the elderly. This was an apparent act of revenge for the assassination, two days earlier, of their leader and president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.

The 1982-1983 attacks were not the end of the confrontation between the United States and shadowy figures in Lebanon. There have been many others. One particularly notable case that has been essentially forgotten is that of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Lebanon. He was kidnapped in Beirut shortly after 8:00 am on March 16, 1984. Several hours passed before senior U.S. Embassy officials realized that he had been abducted. No one knows the exact details.

Three tapes were sent to U.S. officials showing him being tortured by unidentified men. One tape arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, on May 7, 1984; the second on May 30, 1984, at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and the third at the CIA on October 26, 1984. Buckley was probably murdered by his captors in June 1985.

Equally mysterious is the disappearance of two Iranian diplomats, their driver, and an Iranian photojournalist who disappeared in Lebanon. On July 4, 1982, Iran's military attache to Lebanon, Ahmad Motevaselian; Seyyed Mohsen Mousavi, charge d'affaires; their driver Taghi Rastegar Moghadam, and photojournalist Kazem Akhavan were kidnapped in northern Lebanon by the Lebanese Forces of the Maronite Christians, on their way to Iran's embassy in Damascus. Their fate remains unknown.

In 2006, Samir Geagea, commander of the Lebanese Forces, said in an interview that the four were killed after they were abducted. Iran has contended that they were taken to Israel in 1990, and might still be alive.

In the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, Iran helped with the release of several American hostages in Lebanon, in return for receiving weapons and spare parts from Israel. Thus, the same countries that were at odds earlier over the bombings, made secret deals to help one another. Bob Woodward also reported in the Washington Post that the United States provided a list of hundreds of alleged spies and sympathizers of the Soviet Union to the Iranian regime in that period, leading to their arrest and mass execution.

After the attacks, the Marines were moved offshore to avert more terrorist attacks. On February 7, 1984, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Marines to begin withdrawal from Lebanon, which was completed by February 26.

Many books and articles have been published on the attacks, but almost three decades later, we still remain in the dark.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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3 Comments

Your description of American policy at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war tells us more about the opinions of ordinary Iranians than it does the complexity of the situation. The idea that the US supported Iraq throughout was debunked long ago. US policy was to prevent either country from winning.
To that end, it tacitly supported Iran in the beginning stages, in particular by assenting to Israeli shipments of arms to the Islamic Republic. At the same time, true, it frustrated Iran's Security Council initiatives. The reason for this was Iran's policy of exporting the revolution to the Arab world. Saudi Arabia and Egypt in particular were strongly opposed to this resolution. Given the choice, it was only logical that the US supported its allies rather than an Iran that was violently opposed to virtually all the US' initiatives in the region, particularly bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to a peaceful resolution.
The US began to support Iraq only once the military initiative had passed to Iran, and only once Iran rejected a return to the status quo ante. "The road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad" understandably alarmed the other states of the region. That being said, US support for Iraq has often been exaggerated. Iraq's suppliers of weapons were the Soviet Union and France, in addition to many others before the US' less than one percent. The US had a very small diplomatic presence in Iraq, no military one to speak of, and its principal contribution to Iraq was satellite photography. If the US had been the main or only supplier of such intelligence it would have conferred a substantial advantage on Iraq. But it wasn't: the Soviet Union supplied Iraq with satellite intelligence almost from the beginning of the conflict.
One might condemn the US for following a soulless balance of power diplomacy throughout the war. But it is hard to see how the US influenced either its course or its outcome. It was only when Iran tried to stop the movement of Arab oil through the Gulf that the US began to assert its power, and that, you'll recall, was at the very end of the conflict. By that point, the US had lost all sympathy for Iraq and devoted itself to frustrating the ambitions of both parties.

madprof44 / October 25, 2009 11:36 PM

Another good overview, Dr. Sahimi. Thank you.

I would just add that the July 1982 abduction of Iranian diplomatic personnel served as the catalyst for Iran's military involvement in Lebanon, an effort that went on to play an integral part in the successful liberation of the country from Israeli occupation.

@madproff44:
What is your source for this so-called "debunking"? In your brief comment, among other things, you fail to properly address the significance of America's $2 billion dollar aid package to Iraq, the transfer of military parts, real-time surveillance, intelligence assistance, as well as the knocking off of the Iranian Navy's merchant convoy escort fleet which was essential for protecting Iran's merchant shipping. Not to mention the all-out diplomatic cover at the United Nations, even in the face of chemical weapon abuses by Saddam Hussein.

Sure, the US supplied a small amount of military hardware, essentially non-armament aircraft spares, but that has more to do with the treacherous inner-workings of the US government at the time than anything else.

The Americanization of the Iran-Iraq war in 1987-88 was definitely one of the reasons the Iranians were forced to quit the war in 1988. And earlier, it was instrumental in preventing an outright Iranian victory on the battlefield.

I mean, just look at the famous photo of Rumsfield shaking Saddam's hand in Baghdad. Saddam looks like he hasn't slept in a week. He looks whooped! Then there's Rumsfield, reassuring his "boy" will not go down.

Pirouz / October 26, 2009 10:04 AM

My did is in this picture, he is in the top left corner.

Colt Spencer / February 25, 2010 4:58 AM