A `martyr' in growing conflict

Man's death is 1st in Lebanese standoff

December 06, 2006|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- He was a poor, young man shot dead on the outskirts of town in a flurry of fighting that nobody can quite explain.

But by the time Ahmed Mahmoud was buried yesterday under a shower of flowering branches, flanked by Shiite "martyrs" in a cool, quiet cemetery, the neighborhood mechanic had acquired a fame and import he had never tasted in his 21 years.

Clerics and lawmakers trooped dutifully to the mosque to pray over his body. His coffin was lugged as a political display through throngs of anti-government demonstrators laying siege to downtown Beirut. His face was printed on posters and plastered all over town; he was dubbed the "martyr for national unity" and "martyr of the authority's militias."

Mahmoud was the first to die in a deepening political standoff that has bedeviled this city with sectarian tensions and street fighting. But he was also the latest in a lengthy string of Lebanese "martyrs" whose deaths have been seized upon to juice up a political movement.

When he was laid to rest on Monday, thousands of mourners, most of them fellow Shiite Muslims, turned out to grieve his death. They shouted, "Shiite blood is boiling" and "Death to [Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad] Siniora."

"Events like this will be repeated, and it will lead us to a war," said Ali Ayoub, a 20-year-old marketing student who stood at the edge of the grave, a Hezbollah flag knotted over his head like a bandanna. "The people are too angry. They want to get their revenge, but the leaders aren't allowing them. If the situation continues like this, the leaders will lose control."

Hezbollah and its allies, including a popular Christian leader, have sworn to force Siniora's U.S.-backed government out of office. Thousands of their followers have pitched tents and flooded downtown Beirut, encircling government offices and crippling business. But the government has refused to bend, calling the demonstration a "coup d'etat" organized by Syria and Iran, both backers of Hezbollah.

Mahmoud was shot dead in murky circumstances in a neighborhood called Qasqas during one of the many sectarian-tinged street battles that have erupted around Beirut in recent days. The neighborhood is predominantly Sunni; a fight erupted between residents and a group of Shiites that was passing through.

Witness accounts that night indicated that Mahmoud might have been a bystander - his family was one of the few Shiite clans that lived in Qasqas. Neighbors said he had dashed downstairs to see what was happening on the street. It was not clear whether Mahmoud was shot by Sunnis or Shiites, or neither.

Anger is mounting by the day, especially between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Many Sunnis feel that their sect is under attack; they interpret the open-ended, Hezbollah-led demonstration as a Shiite power play against Sunnis. Their leaders urge them to stay home, but patience is thinning.

In rare comments to the Lebanese press, Lebanon's army commander warned that the military could soon lose control of the streets.

Galvanized by Mahmoud's death, Shiites and their Christian allies are growing frustrated by the government's seeming indifference to massive protests. Demonstrators used looming, incandescent images of the young man's face to stir up crowds camped outside the government's offices.

This treatment fits into a long-held Lebanese tradition. The ubiquitous faces of Hezbollah guerrillas who died fighting Israel are a trademark sight in south Lebanon, used to stir loyalty for the cause - and to remind everybody of the enemy to the south, Israel.

Nor are the anti-Syria politicians, who are clinging to power against Hezbollah's relentless political assault, above playing on popular sentiment. Banners and billboards all over Beirut remind passersby of the politicians and journalists who spoke out against Syria and were assassinated in the streets of Beirut.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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