Rival Sunni and Alawite factions fought on Saturday some of the heaviest gunbattles seen in Lebanon's second largest city since the dark days of the the civil war which ended more than two decades ago. The latest bout of fighting here in Tripoli underlines Lebanese worries that the violence that has engulfed neighboring Syria over the past year is spreading across the border, aggravating unhealed wounds from the past and stirring fresh tensions that they fear could trigger a new civil war in Lebanon.
"We cannot be soft dealing with the Alawites and the Shiites because they have decided to slaughter all the Sunnis in Lebanon and Syria," says Sheikh Bilal Masri, a militant Sunni cleric from the Bab Tebbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli. The Alawite sect is an obscure branch of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week warnings that Syria's conflict could spread rang out in the halls of the UN and world capitals. US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said she's worried about a scenario where "the violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies... in involves countries in the region it takes on increasingly sectarian forms and we have a major crisis not only in Syria, but in the region."
That concern was echoed Sunday by Akmaluddin Ihsan Oglu, the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, who warned that Lebanon could slip into civil war once again if the clases continue. "We want all sides in Lebanon to seek their country's higher interest, which is peaceful coexistence between its people," he said.
Tripoli's hilltop district of Jabal Mohsen is where the first embers of a spreading fire could land.
The neighborhood looms over Bab Tebbaneh, is home to most of Lebanon's tiny Alawite community. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen have been feuding with the Sunnis of Bab Tebbaneh and other Sunni quarters surrounding the hill since the mid 1970s, which has earned it the dubious distinction of being Lebanon's most volatile neighborhood.
While clashes between the two communities are not uncommon, their severity has increased. Two weeks ago, 10 people were killed in several days fighting here. On Saturday, 12 people died within 24 hours during clashes which allegedly saw mortar rounds being fired for the first time.
Still, the fighting in Tripoli is usually an isolated affair, accepted by most Lebanese as a result of the unfortunate circumstance in which the communities of Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen find themselves. The fighting here, even when severe, is unlikely to trigger clashes in other places where Sunnis and Shiites live in close proximity unless there is an additional catalyst. Furthermore, although outbursts of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites are likely in the months ahead, the rival political factions in Lebanon have no interest in allowing the country to slide into civil war. Memories are still fresh of the last conflict that lasted between 1975-1990 which killed over 110,000 people and left the country in ruins.
"I haven't slept since Friday," says Sheikh Masri, rubbing his eyes and running his fingers through his long straggly hair. Outside, Lebanese army armored personnel carriers clattered along Syria Street, the frontline between Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. "They fired eight RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] at me while I was manning my position," says the sheikh who always participates in the clashes wearing a black combat vest, his black turban and armed with a veteran French sniper rifle.
The streets outside his home were strewn with discarded garbage and broken glass. Fresh bullet holes speckled the walls of buildings facing the lofty tower blocks of Jabal Mohsen where Alawite snipers lie hidden. To escape the omnipresent snipers, residents erected large canvas screens across the entrances to several narrow streets to keep pedestrians out of sight.
Squeezing through one of the canvas awnings revealed a street filled with Lebanese soldiers, some of them sitting on top of APCs armed with twin-barrelled 23mm machine guns. Groups of bearded men talking earnestly huddled behind walls for protection. The air was acrid with smoke from several buildings with fire-blackened walls at the edge of Jabal Mohsen which had been set alight during the fighting hours earlier. The Alawite residents had fled to relative safety further up hill.
"We are the majority in Tripoli so in numbers alone we could go up the hill unarmed and eat them alive," says Sheikh Masri. "But we cannot hold ground. We have no weapons. Every time we fire an RPG we cry because each round costs $1,000. But the Alawites have all they want. They are supported by the Syrian regime, Iran and Hezbollah - the gang of Satan."
Although a shaky ceasefire settled over the two neighborhoods early Sunday allowing the army to deploy along the confrontation line, no one expects the peace to endure.
"It's not over," says a young man with short hair and thick beard standing with a group of friends on Syria Street. "The only solution is if the Alawites leave from Jabal Mohsen."
Jabal Mohsen is reached by a steep main road that climbs the hill in full view of Bab Tebbaneh. A soldier on an APC casually waves on nervous motorists, signalling that it's safe to proceed - for now.
The leader of the Alawite community in Jabal Mohsen is the portly and genial Rifaat Eid. In the reception room of his heavily guarded office building, a television is broadcasting a live speech by Mr. Assad in which the Syrian president accuses foreign powers of seeking to incite a sectarian civil war in Syria.
Mr. Eid, looks relaxed but tired having had little sleep the previous two days, one thing he has in common with his enemies in Bab Tebbaneh.
"Things are getting much worse than before," he says. "The terrorists who are running from Bashar al-Assad have come to Lebanon and made an army to turn north Lebanon upside down," he says, referring to Sunni militants whom the Syrian regime describe as "armed terrorists gangs" which it alleges are responsible for the violence in Syria. "This is what Saudi Arabia and March 14 want," he adds, referring to Lebanon's Western-backed parliamentary opposition.
The views of Sunnis in Bab Tebbaneh and the Alawites in Jabal Mohsen are mirror images. Both accuse each other of having foreign sponsors, both accuse the other of instigating each clash and both accuse the other side of having superior weapons. Eid charges that the Future Movement, the leading Sunni party headed by former prime minister Saad Hariri, is smuggling large quantities of arms into Tripoli and distributing them to their supporters.
"They all have expensive assault rifles in Bab Tebbaneh," he says. "Those people are too poor to buy food, so how could they afford these rifles if they were not given to them."
So from where do the Alawites obtain their weapons? Eid chuckles and says, "We buy them from arms dealers affiliated with the Future Movement. They may be our enemy, but money talks more than politics."
A picture of former president Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, hangs on the wall behind him. A bookcase is filled with hardback volumes with pictures of pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians and the leader of the militant Shiite Hezbollah stamped across the spines. Eid says that the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen are only defending their homes and have no desire to start fights with the majority Sunnis surrounding Jabal Mohsen.
"We are always accused of starting the fighting here, but we have nothing to gain from igniting a war. We are small and they [the Sunnis surrounding Jabal Mohen] are big," he says. As he speaks a crackle of machine gun fire is heard outside his office. Moments later the walkie talkie on his desk squawks and a voice announces that a woman has been wounded by fire coming from the Baddawi neighborhood on Jabal Mohsen's northern front. "You see? This happens all the time. They are attacking us first," Eid says before making inquiries over the radio to find out the status of the woman.
Out on the street, the automatic weapons fire continues along with ocassional single shot from a sniper.
Mohammed Fadel, a short, tough-looking Alawite who is in charge of some 250 fighters, shelters on a street with some of his men. He had been in the thick of the fighting the previous night.
"They kept firing at us for four hours non stop. We were fighting them at distances of just 15 meters sometimes," he says, as a loud burst of machine gun fire echoes down the street. His comrades were discussing the woman who was shot minutes before, already planning their revenge. "You will see. We are going to mess them up tonight, all their positions," says Mr Fadel. "As long as all those Sunnis with big beards continue to exist, there will be no solution."