Lebanon warily watches its Salafis
While the small community of adherents to strict Islam are being courted by Sunni and Shiite rivals, many worry they could bring Al Qaeda into the Lebanon conflict.
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The Future Movement, headed by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son, also has been seeking to win over the Salafis, securing their support during the 2005 parliamentary elections. The anti-Shiite rhetoric of Salafi leaders has served to rally Sunnis to the Future Movement in opposition to Hezbollah. The Future Movement is accused of providing funds and arms to some Salafi groups, a charge that is rejected by a source close to Mr. Hariri.Skip to next paragraph
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Money and guns
No one doubts that Tripoli is awash with weapons after months of clashes pitting Sunnis against the city's Alawite community, which is close to Syria.
Sheikh Dai al-Islam Shahhal, a cousin of Hassan Shahhal and the leading Salafi figure in Lebanon with close links to the Future Movement, was surrounded by well-armed bodyguards in his office in the Abi Samra quarter of Tripoli. One of them cradled an American M-4 carbine, worth up to $10,000 on Lebanon's black market.
"Syria's supporters here have many weapons, but as far as the Sunni community in Tripoli is concerned, yes, it is true that we are arming, but only with light weapons," says Sheikh Shahhal.
Although the feuding factions in Tripoli formally reconciled two weeks ago, Rifaat Eid, son of the leading Alawite politician in Lebanon, says that, as a member of a pro-Syrian minority in Lebanon, he fears the potential of the Salafis.
"The Salafis are like kittens when they are weak, but when they are strong they become like tigers," he says.
Hostility between Sunnis and Shiites worsened after Hezbollah and its allies stormed the mainly Sunni-populated western half of Beirut in May. A potential meeting between Hariri and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, is being discussed to try and ease tensions. But for many Sunnis, the legacy of the fighting in May continues to feed a sense of humiliation, fear, and anger.
"There is no way there can be a reconciliation with Hezbollah," says Sheikh Baroudi.
Al Qaeda in waiting?
Two weeks ago, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2, launched an attack on Hezbollah and Iran, scorning Sheikh Nasrallah's claim of a "divine victory" over Israel in the 2006 war. He accused Hezbollah of paving the way for "the acceptance of 15,000 crusader soldiers that separate the mujahideen from Israel," a reference to the 13,000-strong UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon.
"Condemning Hezbollah and Iran brings Lebanese supporters closer to Al Qaeda's agenda," says Sheikh Bakri.
Although there is support for Al Qaeda and some Al Qaeda-style groups exist, mainly in Lebanon's teeming Palestinian refugee camps, analysts generally doubt there is a formal presence of the group in Lebanon.
The challenges facing Al Qaeda in building a base here are formidable. Lebanon is small and religiously mixed. And Hezbollah would represent a daunting enemy.
Salafi leaders insist that speculation of an Al Qaeda presence in Lebanon is overplayed. "Hezbollah is more dangerous to Lebanon than Al Qaeda," says Baroudi. "I hope there won't be a confrontation with Hezbollah, but I do see one coming."