Highway peril puts paid to Lebanese profits

Violence in Iraq has shattered Lebanon’s trade with that country, with shipments through Tripoli port halved and road transport down 70%, as Lebanese remain prey to Iraqi hostage-takers.

Out of about 15 Lebanese kidnapped in Iraq, telecom employee Hussein Olayyan was found murdered in Baghdad in June and three others are still being held: truckers Khaled Othman, Nasser al-Jundi and brother Taha.

Businessman Antoine Antoun was released on Tuesday. Antoun had been held hostage since a gang of armed men burst into his Baghdad dairy on July 31.

“Lack of security on the 600 kilometre highway from the Syrian-Iraqi border post of Rutba to Baghdad has slashed the volume of road transport by 70%,” said Bashir Kashou, head of the biggest firm operating the route from Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

Bishar Karam, director of the port near the Syrian border, acknowledged a huge impact on the port where traffic bound for Iraq’s reconstruction drive—travelling through Syria—accounted for 80% of activity.

Imports for Iraq have halved from 85 062 tons three months ago to 43 340 tons, according to Karam. Cars for the Iraqi market have plunged from 6 600 units to a modest 1 217 over the same period.

Lebanese investment in Lebanon has not fared better, falling to a third of the level of almost a year ago, said Fadi Abboud, present of the association of Lebanese industrialists.

Commercial and industrial investment in Iraq was running at an estimated $300-million during the last year of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was toppled by a United States-led military coalition in April 2003.

“Most of the investments, in the petrochemical sector, the manufacture of generators and air conditioners, and supplies of cement, wood, cables and prefabricated homes were frozen” after last year’s invasion, Abboud said.

But the US announcement in May 2003 of an end of major combat operations was like a godsend for Lebanese businessmen who raced to the lucrative new market with import duties exempted and consumer appetite running rampant.

By November, Beirut port registered a 22% rise in annual traffic.

Tripoli port, in the same period, scored a 42% jump and plans were drawn up to invest $25-million in the facility to cope with the upsurge in demand from Iraq.

But the president of the Lebanese truck drivers’ association, Shafic al-Aishish, said any recovery to the levels of last year will depend on security on the roads, especially in the border region between Syria and Iraq.

“The Lebanese are among the Arabs who have paid the highest price because of the insecurity,” he said, referring to the constant threats by Islamic militant hostage-takers for truckers to keep out of Iraq.

“Their attacks and kidnappings are not acts of resistance but filthy crimes,” he said.

“Much of it is the result of Iraqi truckers accusing their Lebanese counterparts of stealing the bread from their mouths,” according to the association chief.

“Lebanese truckers are starting to talk of reprisals” against Iraqi drivers coming into Lebanon to pick up goods and passengers, Aishish said, adding that the association was taking precautions to avoid any such action.
- Sapa-AFP

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