Can Lebanon douse political fires?

Fighting in Tripoli is indicative of rising Sunni-Shiite tensions as the formation of a new government hits an impasse. Religious leaders called for calm Wednesday.

Omar Ibrahim/Reuters
In the middle: The Lebanese Army was deployed in Tripoli, bringing peace, after two days of sectarian fighting that left nine people dead.

Thick black smoke billows out of the shattered windows of a small house on the edge of the Jabal Mohsen district in this city as a fireman directs water into the burning building.

Several other houses nearby also smolder from a spate of arson attacks that are keeping tensions high between the mainly Alawite (an offshoot of Shiite Islam) residents and their traditional rivals in the Sunni quarter of Tebbaneh.

The smoldering fires are an apt metaphor for tensions now threatening a rare breakthrough in this country's governance.

Five weeks ago, Lebanon's feuding political bosses reached an agreement that ended some of the worst internal violence in nearly two decades. Qatar brokered a deal that allowed for the election of a new president and was meant to end 19 months of political deadlock.

But the formation of a new national unity government has hit an impasse. Rival politicians are squabbling over the distribution of cabinet portfolios, and tensions are building once more in flash points around the country.

Some observers also worry that Lebanon, like Iraq, could become a new battleground between Sunni and Shiite extremists. The week-long street battles in Beirut in May – between the militant Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni supporters of the Future Movement – have aggravated simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. But others suggest that these are largely local disputes.

"Differences among the Lebanese have reached the edge of suicide," warned Michel Suleiman, the new president, at a meeting Wednesday of Lebanese spiritual leaders who convened at the presidential palace to discuss how to address the friction.

In a statement after the meeting, Christian and Muslim leaders stressed the need for national unity, denounced extremism, and called on rival factions to refrain from using violence to achieve political gains.

While national political leaders blame their opponents for starting the clashes, most of the recent sporadic outbreaks of fighting in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in the east appear to have been symptoms of old rivalries and localized disputes spinning out of control rather than deliberately orchestrated military campaigns.

Take Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh – two quarters living cheek by jowl in the center of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city. The residents of both districts have been feuding since the 1975-90 civil war when they fought on opposite sides. Today, the residents of Jabal Mohsen, who are mainly Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are supporters of the opposition led by the militant Shiite Hezbollah.

The most popular political party in the Tebbaneh district is the Sunni Future Movement, the largest component of the March 14 parliamentary coalition. But many residents here adhere to the Salafi school of Islam, some of whom believe an ideology that brands Shiites – including Alawites – as apostates.

Continuing political tensions in Lebanon have fanned the glowing embers of rivalry and resentment between Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh, triggering two days of vicious fighting earlier this week that left at least nine people dead and over 50 wounded.

The evidence of the fierce fighting lies in the hundreds of empty brass rifle rounds lying on the main road separating the two quarters. Dozens of shabby houses, many of them still carrying the scars of the civil war, are newly blackened by fire and peppered with fresh bullet holes.

"They were very fierce battles. I have never seen anything like it. These people don't care about civilians and children; they shot at anything," says Abdel-Karim Mahfouz, a construction worker in Jabal Mohsen.

Army troops fanned out in the two districts Monday night to separate the feuding factions. Armored personnel carriers with soldiers sitting on top clattered through the streets Wednesday.

Dozens of young men, some clutching walkie-talkies, huddled in groups along the main road through Jabal Mohsen, sipping tiny plastic cups of coffee and talking quietly.

They blame the outbreak of fighting on the residents of Tebbaneh, saying that militant Salafi clerics had been stirring up Sunni extremists with fiery anti-Shiite sermons. Foreign jihadi militants have infiltrated Tebbaneh and are being armed and paid by Saudi officials and leaders of the Future Movement, they claim, echoing a prevalent rumor in Lebanon.

"We are besieged today. If we leave Jabal Mohsen, the Sunnis beat us and steal our cars," says a man who would only identify himself as "Ali from the Jabal." "The Future Movement ...burned 15 of our houses last night. They don't want peace."

Rifaat Eid, the head of the opposition-allied Democratic Labor Party and a prominent Alawite, says that the community is placing its faith in the Army to impose order.

"If the Lebanese Army hits back at troublemakers then we will have calm," he says from his office in Jabal Mohsen. On his desk lies a pile of posters with the portraits and names of four members of Mr. Eid's party who died in the clashes this week. On a wall behind him is a picture of Hafez al-Assad, the former president of Syria and the father of Bashar al-Assad, the current head of state. The Assad family belongs to the Alawite sect that also dominates the Syrian regime. Their coreligionists in Lebanon have long maintained close political ties to Syria.

"We [Alawites] are a minority and no minority wants to make problems with the majority [Sunnis]," he says. "But we have to defend our families, wives, children. Anyone coming to kill me, I will drink his blood."

Down the hill in Tebbaneh, the rubbish-strewn streets are almost deserted except for a few young men carrying walkie-talkies. Lebanese soldiers order several youths to dismantle a barricade of oil drums and sandbags. Above it flies a black flag bearing a quote from the Koran.

Here, the accusations and strident claims of residents are an echo of those heard in Jabal Mohsen: Iranians are fighting alongside the Alawites, Hezbollah is arming them, residents of Tebbaneh are beaten and robbed if they leave their neighborhood, Jabal Mohsen started the fighting and will not stop.

"The first one we killed in the fighting was a Shiite Iranian," says Mustafa Abbas, a fruit and vegetable salesman. "They only fought hard because the Iranians were with them."

Few here on either side believe that the fighting is over. "We are poor people here in Tebbaneh, but we work and buy weapons, work and buy weapons. We have to defend ourselves," says Mohammed Mahmoud, a resident. "But in the end, it will be we poor people who suffer most of all."

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