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The Lebanese sheikh who's leading a sit-in against Hezbollah

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir has shot to fame by rallying to the cause of Syria's rebels and taking on the most powerful faction in Lebanon.

By Correspondent / July 5, 2012

Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir heads Friday prayers attended by his supporters and Sheikh Omar Bakri (4th r.), a Lebanese Sunni cleric and Islamist preacher, during an open-ended sit-in in Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 29.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters

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Sidon, South Lebanon

A Lebanese Salafist cleric who has emerged over the past year from obscurity to become a leading and controversial Sunni activist has launched a sit-in in this port city to press for the disarming of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah organization.

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A year ago, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was known only to a small group of followers who attended his sermons at the Bilal bin Rabeh mosque in Sidon. But with neighboring Syria mired in ever worsening violence, the sheikh's calls for support for the Syrian rebels and his outspoken criticism of Hezbollah have earned him a national platform and drawn admirers among frustrated Lebanese Sunnis who feel overshadowed by their powerful Shiite rival.

"The imbalance in Lebanon, all the economic problems in Lebanon, all the political problems are a result of the weapons of the Resistance [Hezbollah]," he told the Monitor in an interview. "But every time we raise the subject of the non-state weapons, they accuse us of being [pro-Israel] traitors."

The fate of Hezbollah's weapons is at the center of the political divide in Lebanon, evenly splitting the country between those who support the Shiite group's private arsenal to defend Lebanon against future Israeli aggression and those that distrust Hezbollah's motives and argue that only the state and the Lebanese army has the right to bear arms to defend the nation.

Sheikh Assir and most Lebanese Sunnis belong to the second camp, arguing that Hezbollah uses its weapons not to challenge Israel but to threaten other Lebanese and gain political leverage.

Still, while Sheikh Assir's sit-in has drawn national attention and praise and criticism from rival quarters, it is unlikely that it will hasten the dismantling of Hezbollah's formidable military infrastructure, given the party's political power as the dominant influence in the Lebanese government.

Shutdown of a highway

Sheikh Assir and his followers have blocked off a 200-yard stretch of the main highway bypassing the city center which connects south Lebanon to Beirut, 23 miles north of Sidon. The Lebanese security authorities have chosen for now not to intervene to avoid a confrontation with the cleric.

Tents and awnings of cotton sheets have sprung up along the road providing shelter from the searing summer sunshine. Dozens of men, almost all of them with shaved heads and long beards in the Salafist style, wander along the street or lounge in the shade chatting to each other. A few women also were present, all of them dressed entirely in black chadors with black sunglasses covering their eyes.

"We are getting organized," Sheikh Assir says. "We have people who are preparing new tents, others do the cooking, others clean the streets each day."

He added that there were several hundred protestors at the sit in, almost all of them from Sidon, a mainly Sunni city.

"I have not issued a call for everyone to come here yet," he says. "I am giving the president and the prime minister a chance to resolve this problem of non-state arms."

Cleric argues for 'balance'

The cleric is certainly media savvy. His polite, smiling walkie-talkie-carrying aides quickly usher reporters into his presence and ply them with bottles of water and cups of coffee as Sheikh Assir delivers his message - an unusually bold one at that.

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