Lebanese City's Strife Reflects 2 Conflicts

In Tripoli, Lebanon, fighting between hardline Sunni groups, pro-Hezbollah fighters and government forces has included a spate of violent attacks in recent weeks. Editor's note: Some portions without audio. Video by Alia Ibrahim for The Washington Post; Captioning by washingtonpost.com
By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Despite two decades of lost battles, Samir Hassan sees no alternative to more fighting.

Hassan, a 39-year-old Sunni resident of this northern Lebanese port city, recently picked up his gun to lead a group of street fighters. "When you are torn between your wanting to live and your feeling that you are in real danger, you choose to defend yourself, even if you know you could die, and even when you know your death would be gratuitous," he said.

The on-again, off-again battle in Tripoli pits Sunnis against Alawites, a branch of Islam whose members include the leadership of Syria, Lebanon's often meddlesome neighbor. The conflict here is fueled by Lebanon's internal divisions and a slow-burning proxy war that involves Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

The situation has calmed since the signing of a reconciliation agreement in early September, but two bombings targeting the military have left at least 15 soldiers dead since that time. "I don't think they have solved the real problem; we're hiding the guns for now, but they will be out in a second when [the two sides] disagree again," said Hassan, a part-time soccer coach. More than 20 people died in street clashes in late spring and early summer.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last month that any progress in Lebanon is meaningless before the "eradication of extremists and Salafis moving freely in northern Lebanon." Salafis are Muslims who espouse, sometimes violently, a strict interpretation of Islam that they say is rooted in the era of the prophet Muhammad.

The Syrian government has increased the number of troops it has deployed along its border with Lebanon, a step that some interpreted as a sign of Syrian concern that its Alawite supporters in Tripoli could face attacks by Sunni extremists. Hassan and other residents say the role of Islamist fighters in Tripoli is being exaggerated to justify further violence.

The strife in Tripoli is also an expression of the uncertainty that Lebanese feel about their future and the ascendancy of the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

After a power play that involved sending fighters into predominantly Sunni West Beirut in May, Hezbollah and allied groups wrested political concessions from Lebanon's Western-backed government, including veto power in a new cabinet and the passage of an electoral law that could give Hezbollah a majority in elections next summer.

"What happened in Beirut scared us," Hassan said.

"Hezbollah is trying to control Lebanon in general and to marginalize the Sunnis in particular," said Daii al-Islam al-Shahal, the Tripoli-based founder of the Salafi Jihad movement in Lebanon.

The Alawites sound no less beleaguered. "We're a minority, we're surrounded by Sunnis from all sides; it is not in our best interest to fight, but we will until the last man if we have to," said Rifaat Eid, the military chief of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party .

Some Lebanese politicians worry that Syria may intervene again in Lebanese affairs, but Syrian officials say the extra troops are in place only to combat smuggling. Last week, Assad issued a decree authorizing the government to establish formal diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time since the two countries became independent 60 years ago.

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