Sectarian tensions simmering in Lebanon

Street fights, Hezbollah's Beirut takeover have re-ignited rifts between Sunni, Shiite

May 18, 2008|By New York Times News Service

MENIEH, Lebanon -- After almost a week of street battles that left scores dead and threatened to push the country into open war, long-simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions here have sharply worsened, in an ominous echo of the civil conflict in Iraq.

Hezbollah's brief takeover of Beirut led to brutal counterattacks in northern Lebanon, where Sunni Muslims deeply resented the Shiite militant group's display of power. The violence energized radical Sunni factions, including some affiliated with al-Qaida, and extremist Sunni Web sites across the Arab world have been buzzing with calls for a jihad to avenge the wounded pride of Lebanese Sunnis.

Although the crisis eased Thursday after Arab diplomats brokered a deal to restart political talks among the factions, many Lebanese agree that the hardening of Sunni-Shiite animosities - reminiscent of the Muslim-Christian fault line during the country's 15-year civil war - is likely to make any future conflict here more violent.

"The Sunni-Shiite conflict is in the open now; it's been triggered and operationalized," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "This is a deep wound, and it's going to have serious repercussions if it's not immediately and seriously addressed."

Lebanese political leaders have tried hard to avoid stirring sectarian sentiment, emphasizing the religious diversity of both the governing coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition movement. In a speech delivered the day before Hezbollah supporters seized the capital, the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, went out of his way to deny that Sunni-Shiite tensions were an issue.

But after Hezbollah supporters humiliated Lebanon's main Sunni political leader, Saad Hariri - crushing his weak militia, forcing his party's television station off the air and burning two of his movement's buildings - many of Hariri's supporters were enraged, and they said they would look to another Sunni leader who would help them fight back.

That sentiment has stirred fears that moderate, secular Sunni leaders like Hariri could lose ground to more radical figures, including the jihadists who thrive in Lebanon's teeming Palestinian refugee camps. Fatah al Islam, the radical group that fought a bloody three-month battle with the Lebanese army in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon last year, issued a statement Thursday condemning Hezbollah's actions. The group also gave a warning: "He who pushes our faces in the dirt must be confronted, even if that means sacrificing our lives and shedding blood."

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