BEIRUT — Lebanon’s capital was badly shaken Monday after a night of fighting between factions for and against the embattled president of neighboring Syria, stoking fears that the unrest across the border could spark serious violence here.
The clashes between two Sunni Muslim factions were the worst the city has seen in four years. Two people were killed. The sounds of gunfire and rockets echoed across the city, which is crisscrossed with sectarian and factional fault lines, until dawn. Schools and universities were closed Monday as a security measure, and the city, though busy, was tense.
The fighting appeared to have stemmed from more than a week of unrest in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where many sympathize with the Sunni-dominated uprising in Syria. Daily protests and gun battles in Tripoli have sprung from resentment at the political marginalization of Sunnis as well as anger at the perceived support of Lebanon’s government and parts of the security forces for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Into this toxic mix came news Sunday that a Sunni religious leader, Ahmed Abdul Wahid, who according to local reports had campaigned in the rural region of Akkar on an anti-Assad ticket, and his colleague were fatally shot by security forces as they passed through a checkpoint.
Sunni groups across the country expressed outrage, burning tires and closing off highways in Akkar, in the eastern Bekaa Valley and in Beirut. In the capital, groups of anti-Assad Sunni youths who barricaded a road with tires and rocks in the southern neighborhood of Tarik al-Jadeeda were stopped by armed guards from the office of a pro-Assad Sunni leader, Shaker al-Berjawi.
Fighting quickly erupted, with hundreds of youths opposed to Berjawi buzzing into the area on scooters, according to participants on both sides. A majority of the Sunnis in Lebanon appear to support the Syrian uprising, with most of them resentful of the dominant role of the Syrian-backed Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah in their country.
“Sheik Berjawi was not popular in the neighborhood,” said Abdulqader al-Shami, an electric goods salesman who lives a few hundred meters from the epicenter of the fighting. “He’s an enemy to the inhabitants of the area, and the main difference is his political views on Syria.”
Shami’s views were echoed by a group of young men standing around the charred ruins of Berjawi’s office. They said they were supporters of Lebanon’s largest Sunni political party, the anti-Assad Future Movement, and that they had fired rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers throughout the night.
Speaking Monday, Berjawi said that about 25 guards and staff members were in his office when the fighting began, and that two of them were killed and 12 were injured in about seven hours of shooting. He alleged that members of extremist groups were among the young men who surrounded his office.
Berjawi said that he called on the Lebanese army to help him but that the soldiers who arrived did not intervene. Another pro-Assad Sunni group said its men drove Berjawi and his supporters away in the early hours of the morning. The army probably thought its intervention could inflame the situation, Berjawi said.
“The Lebanese army was in a corner after what happened in the north,” he said. “The situation was tense, and we had to pay for that.”
Lebanese authorities said an investigation of the Sunday shooting of the sheik was underway and urged calm. In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on all sides to show restraint.
On Monday, youths from Tarik al-Jadeeda said that although their actions were motivated by deeper grievances than just the 14 months of bloodshed in Syria, their short-term objectives had been achieved with Berjawi driven away and that further fighting was unlikely.
“We have been saving up for weapons since May 2008,” said one youth, who gave his name as Abu Omar, referring to when chunks of Beirut were taken over by gunmen supporting Hezbollah in a show of force that many Sunnis found humiliating.
“And now,” Abu Omar said, “this is a great victory for us. We are victorious against everyone who hates us because [Berjawi] is supported by Hezbollah and the Syrian leaders, so we feel we are victorious against them.”
Special correspondent Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.