By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 17, 2007
TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Surrounded in the first hours of their battle with Lebanese forces in this northern Lebanese city, fighters of the Fatah al-Islam group shouted desperately from the windows of their hideouts. "God is great!" one resident, housewife Aziza Ahmed, recalled the fighters yelling. "Come be holy warriors with us!"
Mohammed al-Jasm, a 28-year-old unemployed Lebanese Sunni, received his summons by cellphone on May 20, his family believes.
Chunky and unmarried, twice-failed in shopkeeping ventures and increasingly prone to spending his idle hours with fundamentalist friends, Jasm took his gun and rallied to the Sunni group, his brothers said.
He soon made a forlorn cellphone call to his mother: I'm wounded, he told her.
Within hours, Jasm was dead, his body gouged by bullets, his jowly, bearded face pressed into the filthy street. A sister keeps an image of his body captured on a cellphone camera.
To his family, Jasm and a handful of other young Lebanese Sunnis who responded to Fatah al-Islam's appeals died hapless recruits in a conflict that leaders on all sides are promoting between the Muslim world's Sunni majority and Shiite minority.
In Lebanon, the polarization is felt ever more keenly. A governing bloc led by the Sunni-dominated Future Movement of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is locked in an eight-month-old standoff with the Shiite movement Hezbollah, led by Hasan Nasrallah and backed by Iran and Syria. Both sides are arming.
In January, Siniora's administration received pledges of $7.6 billion from the United States, Europe and Persian Gulf states, including millions of dollars in military aid. The Bush administration is trying to strengthen Sunni countries it considers moderate, among them Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to counter Shiite entities such as Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
In Tripoli, residents say they have watched the expansion of groups dedicated to the more strident forms of Sunnism, especially since Hezbollah's war with Israel last year. This growth includes politicking by leaders of the Salafi sect, a fundamentalist stream of Sunni Islam that traditionally rejects politics as an impious Western concept.
At the same time, prominent figures in the Salafi community here have served as intermediaries between their flock and Hariri. In the mosques, "our preachers call upon the people to become part of the political process," said Daii al-Islam al-Shahal, a member of a prominent Salafi family in Tripoli and founder of a group he describes as dedicated to charity, education and preaching.
"There's a relationship between ourselves and Sheik Saad when it's needed," Shahal said. "The biggest Sunni political power is Hariri. The biggest Sunni religious power are the Salafis. So it's natural."
Hariri denies that promoting Sunni political power trickles down to support for armed groups. "We sponsor culture and education, not terrorism," he said in an interview in Beirut. "I am the son of Rafiq al-Hariri -- we never had blood on our hands and we never will."
"I am concerned about Iranian intervention in the affairs of other countries," Hariri added. "But that doesn't mean that we will sponsor Sunni radicalism. Radicalism is not the answer."
The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have fed Sunni militancy, and U.S. and European leaders are inciting it anew in the building confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah, said Alistair Crooke, former Middle East adviser under European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
With U.S. and European governments encouraging the alignment of Sunnis against Shiites, "it should not be surprising that in November a group of Salafis could think it would be important to come to Lebanon to defend their Sunni people against a growing threat," Crooke said. Fatah al-Islam was founded by Shaker al-Abssi, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, who arrived in northern Lebanon late last year after serving a prison sentence in Syria.
Abssi reportedly embraces the ideology of Osama bin Laden and seeks to promote Islamic fundamentalism among Palestinians in Lebanon before eventually attacking Israel.
Mustafa al-Jasm, Mohammed's 40-year-old brother, said the younger man was drawn to Fatah al-Islam by the heated rhetoric accompanying the sectarian divide in the region. Some clerics, he said, "are telling Sunnis, 'You have nothing to do here. You might as well go fight Iran, for our Sunni brothers there.' "
"Saad Hariri and all of his Future Movement, the only sect they have in their hand is the Sunnis, and they used religious speech to pump them up," said Mustafa, a bookkeeper in an auto repair shop here. "The tension built, like a bomb waiting to explode. And my brother was part of that."
Across the bare, uncarpeted living room, one of three shared by the 14-member family, Mohammed's 19-year-old brother, Taya, agreed, unsmiling.
"I put the blame on Saad Hariri and Nasrallah -- this is how they have spread their quarrel to the people," said Taya, who wore a polo shirt and baseball cap rather than the beard and checkered kaffiyeh scarf favored by his dead brother.
In another tenement in the same neighborhood of al-Tabineh, the father of a 26-year-old man killed by Lebanese forces in the first week of fighting with Fatah al-Islam insisted there be no such blame in a time of crisis for his sect.
"Shut up!" Riad Mohammed roared, raising the back of his hand, when the slain youth's kerchiefed grandmother ventured a quiet rebuke of Saad Hariri.
"The Sunni people must stand together now," the father insisted.
The short trip up the narrow concrete steps to their apartment made clear what the family looked for in a leader. Their son's thickly bearded face was first, scowling from a photocopied sheet declaring him a martyr. An image of Saad Hariri and Siniora followed, next to a poster of Saddam Hussein with sunlit clouds surrounding his head. "God bless Osama bin Laden," someone had scrawled one flight up.
After sectarian strife in Tripoli earlier this year unrelated to the clashes between Lebanese forces and Fatah al-Islam, Hariri and his political allies rewarded Sunnis who had fought and honored the families of those who had died. Such patronage has long been a part of Lebanon's largely feudal system of clan loyalty.
Abed al-Rahman al-Helo, 30, the owner of an electrical shop in al-Tabineh, was one such fighter. In January, rival demonstrators shot him through the chest in a street battle between Sunnis and minority Allawites, members of a mostly Syrian sect that is doctrinally close to Shiism. The fighting in Tripoli was sparked in part by Shiite-Sunni clashes in Beirut at the same time that left four people dead.
Two lawmakers from Hariri's Future Movement visited Helo in the hospital, he said.
"They were telling me, 'Don't be afraid. We're proud of you. We have our heads up high because of you,' " Helo said.
The Lebanese government paid 80 percent of his hospital bill and Future took care of the rest, he said, but added that he had refused the $200 Hariri's bloc offered for his pharmacy bills, deeming it insultingly low.
Relatives of Bilal al-Hayek, a 28-year-old tow-truck driver shot dead in the same clash, said they had received $5,400 in separate payments from a Future Movement official in Tripoli.
After Hayek's funeral, Hariri summoned the family to Beirut, said Nazha and Fatima, the dead man's sisters. Hariri received them with ceremony, telling them that Hayek and the others killed in the sectarian brawl were "brothers and martyrs," the sisters said.
But the violence sparked by the more radical Fatah al-Islam group seems to have made Sunni leaders more cautious.
Mustafa al-Jasm said none of the families of those who died alongside Fatah al-Islam had received any support from Hariri or other Sunni politicians.
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim contributed to this report.