Tripoli blast further strains Lebanese tensions

A sectarian power struggle in northern Lebanon is growing increasingly deadly, raising concerns it could lead to more violence throughout the country.

A bomb attack in Tripoli, coming just days after a suicide bombing in Syria that was probably the work of Sunni Muslim extremists, is heightening sectarian tensions in northern Lebanon.

The targets of the latest bombings were Lebanese soldiers, The Daily Star of Lebanon reports.

A devastating explosion ripped through a bus packed with Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldiers in Tripoli on Monday, killing at least five people and wounding at least 33 others. The blast happened during the morning rush hour, at about 7.45 a.m., in the Al-Bahsas area of the city. A parked car rigged with explosives was remotely detonated as the bus passed by. About 20 soldiers were traveling in the bus at the time of the explosion, and four were killed, along with a civilian passer-by.

Bloomberg reports the attacks point to a wider sectarian battle, pitting Sunnis against Shiites.

A wave of sectarian strife is besetting Lebanon's second-largest city, raising the risk of another nationwide civil war as rivalry between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites spreads across the Middle East....
There's "a fierce power struggle" between Sunnis and Shiites in Tripoli, said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of "Hizbullah: Politics and Religion," a history of the militant Shiite movement. "The situation has already been seen to be dangerous and is getting more so."...
The Sunnis' attacks in Tripoli were retaliation against the Shiite takeover of western parts of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, four months ago. Hezbollah pulled out of the area after winning effective veto power over the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni.

Violence has flared in and around Tripoli since last summer, explains Al-Ahram weekly, an English newspaper published in Egypt.

[L]ast summer, soldiers fought a 16-week battle with Al-Qaeda-inspired militant group Fatah Al-Islam, losing 170 soldiers. The gunmen, of Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab nationalities, were holed up in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, just north of Tripoli. Fatah Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-Abssi and other fighters slipped away during the battle and remain at large. The fighting levelled the camp, home to roughly 30,000 Palestinians.

Al-Ahram adds that the city has become a base for Sunni extremists.

Tripoli and nearby rural areas, such as Akkar, are overwhelmingly Sunni and a breeding ground for Islamist movements – peaceful as well as the militant fringe. They are troubled, marginalised areas, despite their size and sizeable populations. Fighting between Sunni Muslims and Alawites allied with Syria killed 23 people over June and July in desperately poor areas near central Tripoli.
The Salafist movement was galvanised, along with the Sunni community at large, by the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. Many in Lebanon and the West accused Syria of killing the country's most powerful Sunni strongman. For many northern Salafis, that fed the rancour that began with the arrests of many Islamists during the years of Syria's military and political dominance of Lebanon, which ended in 2005 after Al-Hariri's death.

Monday's bombing in Lebanon was particularly troubling coming as it did days after a rare and devastating attack in the Syrian capital, Damascus, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

A car bomb, packed with an estimated 440 pounds of explosives, blew up close to a building reportedly housing the Palestine Branch of Syrian military intelligence. It was the worst of its kind since the violent confrontation between the Syrian regime and Islamist militants of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 80s.

The attacker was identified as an extremist militant, Reuters reports.

The bomber was linked to an Islamist group, members of which had previously been detained, [the Syrian news agency] added. There have been no claims of responsibility for the attack.

"Taken together, the bombing and the Syrian announcement raised fears of more attacks by extremist groups in Syria and Lebanon, though political leaders here drew sharply different conclusions about who might be directing the violence," says The New York Times.

Both attacks looked like the work of Al Qaeda, according to The Times of London.

Analysts believe that both attacks bear the hallmarks of terror groups linked to al-Qaeda intent on destabilising the region. Syria has offered shelter to such Mujahidin since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, providing them a base.

The report adds that Syria has lately begun to battle with Sunni extremists.

...Syria, whose stability has long been enforced by its oppressive police and secret services, has been showing signs of strain in the past year, with a number of mysterious assassinations raising questions about internal power struggles and external threats, as it attempts to play all sides off against each other in a volatile region.
It has hosted dangerous Sunni Islamist extremists despite being a secular Sunni country headed by Alawites, a Shia sub-sect considered heretics by al-Qaeda and its hardline Sunni allies.
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