Lebanese sects aim to end clashes

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

Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images
Sectarian fighting: Sunni Muslims in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, fled this summer during clashes between Sunnis and Alawites.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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.

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.

The six-point reconciliation package calls for the removal of armed men from the streets of Tripoli and pledges economic revival programs for the impoverished area. "Tripoli must be disarmed. Weapons do not protect anyone," said Prime Minister Fouad Siniora at Monday's signing ceremony.

But few residents of Sheikhlar, 40 miles northeast of Tripoli, believe that the reconciliation deal will resolve deep-rooted suspicions between Sunni and Alawite communities in north Lebanon. Those tensions have their origin in the years of Damascus's hegemony over Lebanon, when the pro-Syrian Alawites, originally treated poorly by the larger Sunni population, prospered while local Sunni Islamists were persecuted.

The dispute in Sheikhlar centered on the religious affiliation of a tiny mosque of whitewashed walls surmounted by a green dome. Local residents said the mosque originally belonged to the village's Sunni community but was taken over by the Alawites in the late-1970s when Syria was in control of the area.

With Syria having withdrawn its troops from Lebanon in 2005, the Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon's highest Sunni religious institution, recently decreed that the mosque should be restored to the Sunni community. Local Alawites refused to turn the building over, and some militants barricaded themselves inside. A tense standoff ensued.

A local Alawite parliamentarian is alleged to have brought a carload of weapons to the militants inside the mosque, a claim not denied by Rifaat Eid, son of Alawite leader Ali Eid. "We are a minority and we need weapons before we need food," he says.

The climax came when Sheikh Ezzedine Qassem, the Sunni imam of neighboring Aidamoun village, was shot dead outside the mosque, allegedly by an Alawite sniper, while trying to mediate an end to the crisis. "After the sheikh was killed, all the people in the village grabbed their weapons and ran toward the mosque," says Mohammed Ali, a Sunni resident.

The Army, which had deployed to the village to impose order, traded gunfire with the vengeful Sunnis, to prevent them attacking the Alawites in the mosque. One soldier was wounded and several Sunni militants were arrested, provoking anger from residents. "The people here are upset with the way the security forces took control of the situation. We feel that they sided with the Alawites against us," says Mustafa Abbas, a Sunni resident of Aidamoun.

The Alawite defenders in the mosque abandoned it and fled across the Kabir River, a few hundred yards north, which marks part of Lebanon's border with Syria.

With the mosque now sealed off and protected by Lebanese soldiers, the violent dispute remains a raw wound for local Sunnis, who demand justice for the slain cleric. Meanwhile, the nervous Greek Orthodox inhabitants, the largest sect among Sheikhlar's population of under 1,000, are keeping a low profile, anxious for the future.

"We have always lived together in peace here. We work together peacefully. Sunnis marry Alawites and Christians marry Sunnis. We do not need this kind of schism in our village," says Rifaat Mackoul, the Greek Orthodox mayor of Sheikhlar.

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