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Sunni backlash follows Hezbollah's strike in Lebanon

Sectarianism hardened in Lebanon after the Shiite militants clashed with Sunni groups. Talks in Qatar aim to resolve the crisis between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2008

Aftermath: Evidence of recent clashes between Hezbollah and Lebanon's Sunni groups remained Sunday in Mount Lebanon, near Beirut.

Steve Crisp/Reuters


MARJ AL-ALI, Lebanon

Broadcast from loudspeakers attached to the local mosque, a fiery sermon of anger and resentment against the militant Shiites of Hezbollah echoed across the rooftops and surrounding wooded hills of this small Sunni-populated village.

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"They said they were resistance against Israel, but now the mask has fallen, exposing their true faces," thundered the sheikh, his oratory just one of many similarly themed Friday sermons from dozens of other mosques scattered throughout the Sunni-dominated Iqlim al-Kharroub district between Beirut and the coastal city of Sidon.

"You hear that?" asked Mohammed Hajjar, a parliamentarian with the Future Movement, Lebanon's largest Sunni political party, sipping coffee in his garden a few hundred yards from the mosque.

"The people are furious about what happened and they are scared. All the time I have Future Movement people coming up to me, saying they want weapons. But our strategy is not to have weapons. We don't want a civil war."

Hezbollah's swift routing of Sunni groups during deadly street battles that started May 8 in Beirut has spawned an ominous backlash within Lebanon's Sunni community – one of anger, humiliation, and fear. While fighting lasted about a week, the result could see the influence of moderate Sunni leaders weaken as their constituents shift toward more militant groups – such as Al Qaeda and its adherents – as a perceived source of protection against powerful Hezbollah.

"What happened in Beirut could push the Sunnis to extremism," says Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a prominent Sunni cleric in Sidon and a close ally of Hezbollah since the 1980s.

Hezbollah's offensive in Beirut may have been intended only as a short, sharp shock to discourage the Lebanese government from tampering with its military wing, but it has delivered a blow to the Shiite party's longstanding efforts to prevent intra-Muslim discord.

"Hezbollah knows that it will have to reach a settlement and make up with the Sunnis," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who closely follows Hezbollah affairs.

The fighting was rooted in profound political differences between supporters of the government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, but it was overshadowed by the sectarian affiliations of the rival factions. The bulk of the opposition combatants were Shiites while the majority of those who fought on the side of the government were Sunnis and Druze. The Christians, who are split between the two camps, stayed out of the battles.

The fate of Hezbollah's weapons lies at the heart of the 18-month political crisis and was the trigger for last week's showdown. The Lebanese cabinet decision to declare Hezbollah's private telephone network illegal was regarded by the Shiite group as a direct assault against its military wing by the government and its backers in Washington.

But Sunni-Shiite tensions have been building for months as Hezbollah expands its military capabilities, sometimes into non-Shiite areas. In late April, Hezbollah militants occupying a building in the Iqlim al-Kharroub village of Saadiyet beside the southern coastal highway clashed with the Sunni residents. According to Mr. Hajjar, when Lebanese troops intervened, they were denied entry into the building by a local Hezbollah official who claimed it belonged to the "resistance."

"Saadiyet is Sunni, so why was Hezbollah there?" asks Hajjar. "We now know that they have many buildings along the [southern coastal] highway because they want to control all the highway."