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.

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

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.

"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."

After Hezbollah militants and their allies surged into west Beirut, angry and humiliated Sunni residents vented their frustrations at Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement.

"We were betrayed by Hariri," says Omar Abed, a resident of the Sunni district of Tariq Jdeide in Beirut. "They should have given us weapons and training so that we could fight back. How can we fight Hezbollah with sticks and stones?"

In Masnaa, on the Lebanon-Syria frontier in the eastern Bekaa, a 100-strong group of pro-government Sunni gunmen from the nearby village of Majdal Anjar, including veterans of the Iraq insurgency, had seized control of the border crossing.

Ali, the leader, emphatically disassociated his group from the Future Movement. "We are the sons of Majdal Anjar," he says.

One gunman says that the Sunnis of the area had no choice but to protect themselves. "The Future Movement is not helping us, so we have to help ourselves against the Shiites," he says.

In the northern city of Tripoli, Khaled Daher, a former parliamentarian, urged the formation of a national Sunni resistance force, "because those who occupied Beirut are a group in a Persian army," he says referring to the Iranian support of Hezbollah.

Analysts say that Mr. Hariri faces a difficult challenge in the coming weeks to reassure his nervous followers and prevent them from abandoning moderacy for a more militant line. That is a worry for Hezbollah, too. The anti-Shiite militancy of Al Qaeda represents a threat to Hezbollah as it does to moderate Sunni leaders in Lebanon.

"The cracks that appeared in the body of the Future Movement are likely to expand fast in the coming months," wrote Ibrahim al-Amine, a Hezbollah confidante and general manager of the pro-opposition Al Akhbar newspaper. "This forces Hezbollah to contemplate the big question: With whom will it deal in the future and how?"

As the fighting flared in Beirut, jihadist websites were abuzz with speculation about a civil war in Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam, an Al Qaeda-inspired faction that fought a bloody three-month battle against the Lebanese Army last summer, vowed to come to the aid of Lebanese Sunnis against Hezbollah. "What has happened in Beirut – the invasion, the killing, the incineration, the humiliation against the Sunnis – is not acceptable," said a statement, the authenticity of which could not be verified.

Sheikh Hammoud, the Hezbollah-allied Sunni cleric in Sidon, acknowledges that there is support for Al Qaeda in Lebanon and that it could grow in the wake of the sectarian battles. He says he has sent messages inviting Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his deputies to contact him directly.

"I want to inform them on exactly what is going on in Lebanon so they don't come here," he says. "Unfortunately, no matter what we say about this conflict, I think Al Qaeda will be tempted to come."

Lebanon's top leaders traveled to Qatar Friday to negotiate a deal to end the crisis. Hopes are high that the dialogue will succeed, but few Lebanese believe that the troubles are really over. "We hope that it will be an end to our problems," says Hajjar. "But realistically, I think it's only the beginning."

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