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Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s Sunnis gird for a fight


As segments of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community have become emboldened by events in Syria, Islamists and militants have seen their influence swell and an increasingly aggressive rhetoric has found a more receptive audience.

Many Lebanese Sunnis identify closely with the mostly Sunni rebels fighting against the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite. At the same time they feel deprived, forsaken by the state and subjugated by other factions. Building off this anger and inspired by the gains of Syria’s rebels, they have become more vocally hostile toward Hezbollah, the Shiite party; the government, dominated by Hezbollah; and the Syrian regime.

“I believe Sunnis are coming out of chains,” said Omar Bakri, a radical Sunni cleric who lives in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, after Beirut. “The blood of the innocents in Lebanon and Syria, we are not going to let it go without accountability.”

Addressing a rally of protesters blocking roads this month, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, the Sunni sheik regarded as the founder in Lebanon of the puritanical Salafi movement, railed against the enemies of the Sunni community. “They want to make us slaves, they want to control us with weapons like Bashar al-Assad does,” he said. “We are targets.”

While the anger is not new, the Sunni community has long been hindered politically by a lack of leadership, cohesion and organization. But this is changing.

Slowly, leaders are emerging. One is Sheik Ahmad Assir, a Salafi cleric from the southern city of Sidon. His opponents dismiss him as attention-grabbing, but Mr. Assir’s readiness to confront both Hezbollah and the influence of Syria and Iran in Lebanon resonates with many who are frustrated by the status quo.

“When the pain from the Iranian domination increased, people saw honesty and truth in what we believed, so they joined us,” Mr. Assir said. Like some other hard-line Sunni Islamists, Mr. Assir refuses to call Hezbollah by its name, which means the Party of God in Arabic, referring to it instead as the Iranian occupation or the Iranian project in Lebanon. Others call Hezbollah the Party of Satan.

In relatively short order, Mr. Assir has built up a legion of devout militant followers. Across the country, his fiery speeches draw thousands, overriding the geographic divisions that separate the country’s scattered Sunni enclaves.

“Sheik Assir is the voice of all people — Muslims, Christians, Druze — because he is against Hezbollah’s weapons,” said Khaled al-Masri, a protester at the rally in Tripoli.

When Mr. Assir’s movement first drew attention last year, he emphasized that it was peaceful and unarmed, in contrast, he said, to Hezbollah. In recent months, though, his supporters have fought gun battles with opponents, and gunmen now accompany the cleric in public.

Late last month, Mr. Assir himself dressed in fighter’s apparel and clutched an automatic rifle as he stood guard at his Sidon mosque. He has claimed that Hezbollah members have established an armed presence near his mosque and warned that they may be looking to attack.

“Our carrying of arms was a reaction to being surrounded by armed groups when the Lebanese security forces did not come to our rescue,” Mr. Assir said in an interview. “After being attacked by the Iranian occupation, we declared that we will retaliate to any attack against us.”

In the Dahiyeh, Beirut’s predominantly Shiite southern suburban area, Hezbollah has established its headquarters, controlling the area completely and managing everything from security to social services. It is effectively running a state within a state.

Sunni militants like Mr. Bakri are now intent on establishing similar zones to call their own. A longtime resident of Britain, where he was a controversial figure for his extremist views, Mr. Bakri was barred from that country in 2005 when the British government stepped up its counterterrorism measures. In 2010, he was found guilty on terrorism charges and handed a life sentence by a Lebanese court. Yet he remains free, living unmolested in Tripoli.

“Islamists move in Tripoli with their own arms and weapons, and nobody dares to touch them,” Mr. Bakri said.

In Tripoli and other seats of Sunni militancy, armed groups now operate with relative impunity. Militias brandish their weapons across the city, even in front of deployed Lebanese security forces.

On a recent evening, masked gunmen assaulted a Tripoli hospital to free a comrade who had been injured and captured in an attack on a government minister’s convoy in January. Arrests for such incidents are rare.

In the city center, posters of a Sunni militia commander killed several years ago hang alongside black Islamist flags on the facades of once beautiful buildings dating from the days of French rule. Balaclavas and vests for carrying ammunition are sold on the street.

“When Hezbollah and their friends attack us, we will make a Dahiyeh for every place that has Sunni people,” said Bilal Masri, a Sunni militia leader in the city’s restive Bab al-Tabbaneh district.

As the Syrian civil war has dragged on, Mr. Masri’s impoverished neighborhood has seen increasingly frequent and deadly clashes with Jabal Mohsen, a nearby Alawite quarter that is home to many staunch supporters of Mr. Assad, their co-religionist.

Some Lebanese Sunni militants have taken to flying the rebel Free Syrian Army flag. Others have crossed the border to join the rebel fighters.

Last month, the Free Syrian Army threatened to start attacking Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, accusing Hezbollah of sending fighters into Syria to aid government forces and shelling Qusayr, Syria, and its environs from positions inside Lebanon.

Any cross-border attack could have serious consequences for Lebanon. Despite bouts of violence related to the war in Syria, it has so far been able to escape all-out conflict, but at least one video released by a rebel officer has called on Lebanese Sunnis to join with the Free Syrian Army in confronting Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Leaders of the Future Movement, the political party traditionally backed by the Sunni community, are intent on avoiding a conflict, but they have lost much of their sway over militants and hard-line Islamists.

“We hope that confrontation will not happen, but Nasrallah, with his support for the Syrian regime and the killing of the Syrian people, is pushing us towards it,” Mr. Assir said.

Militia leaders like Mr. Masri are more openly spoiling for a fight.

“We will fight Hezbollah if the Free Syrian Army asks us to or not, because Hezbollah will attack us,” he said. “We are already in a civil war right now.

“Lebanon is already divided and it is just waiting for a spark, nothing more.”


Source: The New York Times

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