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July War Cables—Obeid: Berri’s Fortune, One Billion Dollars

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AMAL-HIZBALLAH MARRIAGE WEAKENING AMAL BUT MAY OPEN A WAY FOR OTHER SHIA

id: 59740
date: 4/7/2006 11:41
refid: 06BEIRUT1090
origin: Embassy Beirut
classification: CONFIDENTIAL
destination:
header:
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PP RUEHAG RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHKUK RUEHMOS
DE RUEHLB #1090/01 0971141
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 071141Z APR 06
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2950
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY

----------------- header ends ----------------

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BEIRUT 001090

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

NSC FOR ABRAMS/DORAN/WERNER/SINGH

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/06/2016
TAGS: IR, IS, KISL, LE, PGOV, PTER, SY
SUBJECT: MGLE01: AMAL-HIZBALLAH MARRIAGE WEAKENING AMAL
BUT MAY OPEN A WAY FOR OTHER SHIA

Classified By: Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman. Reason: Section 1.4 (d).

SUMMARY
--------

1. (C) Econoff met separately with independent Shia leaders
Mohammad Obeid and Mohammad Baydun on April 5. Both Obeid
and Baydun reported that Amal's support is crumbling away at
the rank-and-file level. The main reason was Amal movement
leader and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri's perceived
subservience to Hizballah as well as his rampant corruption.
Berri is even losing supporters in his power base in Tyre and
among government employees. Obeid saw an opportunity in the
erosion of Amal support. His embryonic third way movement is
quietly recruiting disgruntled Amal supporters by promising
to return to the Imam Musa Sadr's vision. Baydun, however,
doubted that the political climate is right for a Shia third
way movement. Obeid said that the political climate is
gradually changing because the aura around Hizballah
Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Hizballah is fading as

SIPDIS
he engages more and more in ordinary politics. Both Obeid
and Baydun saw the prospects for Hizballah disarmament as
dim. End summary.

THE AMAL GIANT HAS FEET OF CLAY
-------------------------------

2. (C) On April 5, econoff met separately with two
prominent independent Shia leaders: intellectual and
political analyst Mohammad Obeid and former MP and cabinet
minister Mohammad Baydun. Both Obeid and Baydun, from
Nabatiyeh and Tyre respectively, reported that support for
Amal in southern Lebanon is crumbling away. According to
Obeid, the main reason is the loss of credibility by Amal
movement leader Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. There is
the perception that Berri is a junior partner to Hizballah
and does whatever Hizballah Secretary General Hassan
Nasrallah asks of him. Second, Berri's reputation for
rampant corruption is catching up to him. Obeid said that
Amal supporters in the thousands are leaving Amal to support
Hizballah. He noted the large number of Amal supporters at
Hizballah's February 23 rally to protest the bombing of the
Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. Obeid said that such a large
Amal turnout for a Hizballah rally would have been unheard of
a few years ago.

3. (C) There are additional signs that Berri is losing
ground in his power base. Even some of the 5,000 government
workers who owe they jobs to Berri's patronage are leaving
his fold. Obeid added that if privatization proceeds, Berri
will be in big trouble once his cronies lose their patronage
jobs. On February 23, Berri also held a rally in Tyre
against the Golden Mosque bombing but only 35 people showed
up to hear him speak. Tyre is supposed to be Berri's
stronghold, emphasized Obeid. He estimated that with a new
electoral law, and if Hizballah does not save Berri with a
joint list, Berri's parliamentary bloc would shrink from 15
MPs to five or six in the next elections. Obeid does not
expect Hizballah or Syria to rescue Berri in the next
elections. The Syrian regime is angry at Berri, according to
Obeid. Damascus blames Berri, as leader of the Ayn el-Tinneh
coalition, for failing to defeat the "Cedar Revolution."
There also is talk that Berri allowed pro-Syrians in
parliament and government to lose their jobs.

4. (C) In a separate meeting on April 5, Baydun had similar
views. Berri is seen as being with Hizballah. Some two to
three thousand young people have left Amal for Hizballah,
according to Baydun. Amal is increasingly viewed in the Shia
community as a Berri family enterprise. Berri has placed his
brothers and relatives in high positions in government, thus
allowing them to skim off public funds, according to Baydun.
Baydun does not think Berri can win another term as Speaker.

THIRD WAY TAPS INTO
AMAL RANK AND FILE
------------------

5. (C) Obeid had recently returned from meetings in
Nabatiyeh and was buoyed by the prospects of forming a third
way Shia political movement. Shia intellectuals have never
been with Hizballah and are the biggest supporters of a third
way. However, Obeid said he and his allies were beginning to
recruit Amal supporters. His group, still in the formative
stages, will structure its platform around the Imam Musa
Sadr, just like Amal. However, the message will be that
Obeid's group is staying true to Musa Sadr's vision by

BEIRUT 00001090 002 OF 003

refusing to engage in corruption.

6. (C) Obeid was optimistic that he could recruit large
numbers of Amal supporters by focusing on Berri's well-known
corruption. Obeid asserted that the Berri family is worth
around USD 2 billion. "Imagine," he exclaimed, "I knew Berri
in 1990 and he was living in a rented apartment!" In
addition, the Berri family are most likely the largest land
owners in southern Lebanon. Obeid added that Berri receives
USD 400,000 a month from Iran. He uses a fourth of the money
to shore up his support and pockets the rest, according to
Obeid. (The political problem is not that he receives money
from Iran, but that he keeps most of it.) Obeid plans to
appeal to the secular, nationalist nature of traditional Amal
supporters. Econoff asked whether Obeid's plan would
basically gut Amal for his third way movement. Obeid
acknowledged that Hizballah supporters would not necessarily
flock to him.

7. (C) Baydun also reported that many Amal supporters are
unhappy with Berri and are looking for another movement.
However, Baydun, who contemplated running against
Amal-Hizballah in last year's parliamentary elections, said
that those who would be open to a third way, namely Shia
elites, intellectuals, and disgruntled Amal supporters, lack
a credible face to rally behind. They need prominent Shia on
their side. Also, the political climate right now is not
right. It would be difficult for a third way movement to
campaign without being seen as anti-Hizballah and
anti-resistance.

BREAKING HIZBALLAH TABOOS
-------------------------

8. (C) Econoff asked Obeid if he wouldn't just face the
same vicious Hizballah political attacks that previous third
way movement proponents have faced. Obeid admitted that this
was an obstacle, but clarified that his movement is looking
at the long term. He can sense the political climate
changing as taboos about discussing Hizballah and its
resistance activities are beginning to fade away. First, any
Shia seen shaking the hand of Lebanese Forces leader Samir
Ja'ja' three months ago would have been declared a traitor.
Now, Nasrallah is sitting at the same table with Ja'ja' in
the national dialogue. By participating in the national
dialogue and sitting down with the likes of Walid Jumblatt,
Amin Gemayel, and Berri, Nasrallah has lowered himself to the
level of Lebanon's ordinary politicians. Obeid can see the
aura around Nasrallah fading as he participates more in basic
politics. Second, Hizballah has opened itself to
negotiations on its arms and activities. Before it was taboo
to question the legitimacy of the resistance, and now
Hizballah has submitted to at least talks on its arms even if
it gives unrealistic conditions for disarmament. Third, the
prospect of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic talks would show that
even Iran will talk to the USG. Hizballah cannot afford to
be more extreme than Iran.

9. (C) Obeid admitted that he has a long way to go. The
current climate of confessional tensions is unfavorable to a
third way. Hizballah has been telling the Shia that only
Hizballah can protect them from the Sunni, Christians, and
Druze. The Shia community is fearful of being left out of
governing the country if it does not coalesce around a strong
party. The Shia are afraid of losing the political and
economic ground they have gained since the 1970s. According
to Obeid, Shia resentment of other confessions is strong
because the others accuse Shia of being Syria supporters.

NOT SO OPTIMISTIC ON DISARMAMENT
--------------------------------

10. (C) Obeid was not as optimistic on the prospects for
Hizballah disarmament as he was on political change in the
Shia community. Obeid did not think Hizballah would ever
deliver its arms to the Lebanese army or join it. Hizballah
does not trust the military and security services now that
Syrian intelligence is at least overtly gone. The most the
national dialogue may accomplish, according to Obeid, would
be an agreement that Hizballah could not use its arms
whenever it wanted to. Hizballah would have to consult with
the GOL before carrying out any military operations.

11. (C) Baydun was equally pessimistic about the chances
that Hizballah would disarm. He thinks the process would
take years. Hizballah will argue that the Lebanese army is
not ready to take over Hizballah positions on the border that

BEIRUT 00001090 003 OF 003

many southern Shia see as a cordon sanitaire protecting them
from future Israeli aggression. Hizballah enjoys the credit
for nearly six years of stability in southern Lebanon,
according to Baydun. Baydun doubts Shia could support
disarmament because they distrust the Maronites and Saad
Hariri. Shia fear that the Maronites and Hariri will try to
dismantle the state into a confederation. (Comment: This
Shia fear is ironic given that Hizballah operates as a
virtual state-within-a-state in south Beirut, southern
Lebanon, and parts of the Biqa' Valley. End comment.)
Baydun dismissed the Aoun-Hizballah agreement as a tactical
move by Hizballah. Hizballah feels no obligation to honor it
in the long term.

COMMENT
-------

12. (C) Obeid was characteristically overly optimistic.
His movement, if it gets off the ground, will face the same
blistering political counter-attack from Hizballah that other
third way attempts faced last year. Even the Mufti of Sidon
had to retreat under the Hizballah storm. Nonetheless,
Obeid's reports, if true, are encouraging for the prospects
of choice among Shia. It should be noted that for the near
to medium term, a successful third way movement is more
likely to strip away Amal than cause any significant damage
to Hizballah's support. End comment.


FELTMAN


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