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Lebanese sects aim to end clashes

Fights between Sunnis and Alawites highlight challenges facing a sectarian-reconciliation deal signed this week.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2008

Sectarian fighting: Sunni Muslims in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, fled this summer during clashes between Sunnis and Alawites.

Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images

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Sheikhlar, Lebanon

The dispute began over a tiny single-room mosque. The local Alawites controlled it, but the village's Sunnis claimed it as their own. Late last month, the struggle turned violent, pitting neighbor against neighbor and leaving a religious cleric dead. Order was only restored after the forceful intervention of Lebanese troops.

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The recent violence and continuing friction in this remote village beside Lebanon's northern border with Syria underline the challenges facing a widely hailed reconciliation deal reached this week by feuding political leaders that is supposed to ease sectarian tensions between rival factions in northern Lebanon.

"This reconciliation effort will go nowhere because pressure has been building in the north for months," says Walid Abbas, a resident of Sheikhlar.

The agreement, signed Monday by top leaders in the north Lebanon city of Tripoli, is being treated as an opportunity to end months of sporadic clashes between local Alawite and Sunni groups in the area, which has left more than 20 people dead and dozens wounded. But political and sectarian divisions remain deep here, stirred further by allegations of meddling between regional rivals Syria and Saudi Arabia.

"Despite this deal, the differences are still there, and they are big differences. There is no guarantee that it will work as it depends on the will of the sponsors of the local Lebanese groups – Syria and Saudi Arabia," says Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper.

The reconciliation deal comes as Lebanon's political bosses, with an eye on what promises to be knife-edge parliamentary elections next May, attempt to shore up grass-roots support and weigh the possibility of new political alliances.

But the political climate remains volatile. On Wednesday night, Sheikh Saleh Aridi, a senior aide to Talal Arslan, the leading Druze opposition figure, was killed in a car bombing in the mountains overlooking Beirut. His murder, the first of an opposition figure since 2005, came amid speculation of a potential electoral partnership between the pro-Syrian Mr. Arslan and his traditional Druze rival, Walid Jumblatt, an outspoken critic of Damascus.

The assassination has cast a shadow over the Tripoli cease-fire agreement, which was reached following a reconciliation meeting between Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni Future Movement, and Ali Eid, head of the Arab Democratic Party which represents Lebanon's Alawite community.

Alawites are a splinter of Shiite Islam and number around 100,000 in Lebanon, living in the hill-top Jabal Mohsen district of Tripoli and a cluster of villages along Lebanon's northern border with Syria. The community is a close ally of the Alawite-dominated regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia backs the Future Movement.