US orders diplomats out of Lebanon amid fears

The State Department ordered all nonessential U.S. personnel Friday to leave Lebanon, reflecting fears that an American-led strike on neighboring Syria would unleash more bloodshed in this already fragile nation.

The Lebanese government’s top security body held an emergency meeting and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah put its fighters on high alert.

In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militias threatened to retaliate against Washington’s interests inside the country if the U.S. goes ahead with strikes against Syria, according to Iraqi security officials and militants themselves.

Cleric Wathiq al-Batat, who leads the Mukhtar Army, a shadowy Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, said his forces are preparing for a strong reaction against any country that takes part in any Syria strike. He claimed that militants have selected hundreds of potential targets, which could include both official American sites and companies “associated with the Americans.”

“There is a good level of coordination with Iran on this issue and I cannot reveal more. But I can say that there will be a strong response,” he said. “Each armed group will have duties to carry out.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in its Friday edition that the U.S. has intercepted an order from Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, telling Iraqi militias to prepare to strike American interests inside Iraq. The Journal report quoted unnamed American officials, who said the U.S. Embassy was one potential target.

Lebanon and Syria share a complicated history and a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries. The uprising against President Bashar Assad has intensified divisions among Lebanese religious groups as well as polarization among those who support him and those backing the rebels fighting to topple him.

Lebanon has become consumed by the civil war next door. Car bombings, rockets, kidnappings and sectarian clashes — all related to the conflict — have become increasingly common in recent months.

Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, has sent its fighters to back Assad’s forces against the rebels and the militant group’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has suggested he would to do everything it takes to save the regime.

Adding to the jitters, the U.S. said it had instructed its nonessential staff to leave Beirut and urged private American citizens to get out of Lebanon.

The step had been under consideration since last week, when President Barack Obama said he was contemplating military action against the Syrian government for its alleged chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds near Damascus.

“Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly. Access to borders, airports, roads, and seaports can be interrupted with little or no warning,” a State Department statement said.

In a separate advisory for Turkey, the State Department announced it would allow personnel at the Adana consulate — the closest diplomatic post to Syria — to leave their posts. It recommended that U.S. citizens defer nonessential travel to southeastern Turkey.

The department also renewed its travel warnings for Iraq and Pakistan, advising Americans of continuing security concerns in those two countries. Both have been the subject of long-standing travel warnings.

The worst-case scenario for Lebanon would be if Hezbollah, also a close ally of Iran, were to retaliate by launching a barrage of rockets at U.S. ally Israel. Such a move would be almost certain to trigger a response by Israel that would leave a trail of destruction in its wake.

The group has mobilized its fighters in southern Lebanon, redeploying and putting thousands of its fighters on high alert, according to residents and a Lebanese security official.

In villages close to the border with Israel, Hezbollah operatives were taking extra precautionary measures, and some have switched off their mobile phones to avoid detection, one official close to the group said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give statements to journalists.

Analysts, however, say the Shiite group, which fought Israel to a draw in a 34-day war in 2006 that destroyed much of southern Lebanon, is wary of picking such a fight right now on its own.

“I don’t think Hezbollah will open the front from south Lebanon if there is no war between Israel and Syria,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and director of the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut.

“Hezbollah will not play that very dangerous game, which would bring the whole area to a very, very dangerous war.”

The 2006 war, which began abruptly after Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers in a daring cross-border attack, triggered a massive evacuation effort by foreign embassies of their nationals from Lebanon, including about 15,000 Americans who were removed by air and sea after Israel bombed runways and fuel tankers at Beirut’s airport.