Libyans celebrated their liberation with mass demonstrations in Benghazi yesterday, the 28th anniversary of another landmark event in Middle East history. On Sunday, 23 October 1983, at 6.22 a.m., a suicide bomber rammed a truck into the US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut Airport and detonated what FBI forensics specialists would later describe as the largest conventional explosion in history. Two hundred and forty-one American service personnel died. A similar assault in Beirut that morning killed 58 French troops. The perpetrators were undoubtedly members of the nascent Hizbullah movement.
The Lebanese braced themselves – some in excitement, others in dread – when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit was announced. Since the early 1980s, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard helped to set up Hizbullah, Lebanon has been ‘the lung through which Iran breathes’ in the Arab world, as the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, an early mentor to Hizbullah, famously put it. That lung has developed into a mini-regional power – the only Arab army to have forced Israel to withdraw from Arab land, as Hizbullah often brags – and a major player in Lebanon’s highly sectarian, highly volatile political system, adored by its Shia followers and resented by many Sunnis and Christians.