Lebanese 'martyr' joins long tradition

Times Staff Writer

He was a poor, young man shot dead on the outskirts of town in a flurry of fighting that nobody can quite explain.

But by the time Ahmed Mahmoud was buried Tuesday under a shower of flowering branches, flanked by Shiite Muslim "martyrs" in a cool, quiet cemetery, the neighborhood mechanic had acquired a fame and import he had never known in his 21 years.

Clerics and lawmakers trooped dutifully to the mosque to pray over his body. His coffin was lugged as a political display through throngs of anti-government demonstrators laying siege to downtown Beirut. His face was printed on posters and plastered all over the Lebanese capital; he was dubbed the "martyr for national unity" and the "martyr of the authority's militias."

Mahmoud was the first to die in a deepening political standoff that has unleashed sectarian tensions and street fighting in this city. But he was also the latest in a lengthy string of Lebanese whose deaths have been seized upon to juice up a political movement.

When he was laid to rest, thousands of mourners, most of them fellow Shiites, turned out to mourn him. They shouted "Shiite blood is boiling!" and "Death to [Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora!"

"Events like this will be repeated, and it will lead us to a war," said Ali Ayoub, a 20-year-old marketing student who stood at the edge of the grave, the flag of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah knotted over his head like a bandanna. "The people are too angry. They want to get their revenge, but the leaders aren't allowing them. If the situation continues like this, the leaders will lose control."

Hezbollah and its allies, including a popular Christian leader, have sworn to force Siniora's U.S.-backed government out of office. Thousands of their followers have pitched tents and flooded downtown Beirut, encircling government offices and crippling business. But the government has refused to bend, calling the demonstration a "coup d'etat" organized by Syria and Iran, both backers of Hezbollah.

Mahmoud was shot dead in murky circumstances in a neighborhood called Qasqas during one of the many sectarian-tinged street battles that have erupted around Beirut in recent days. The neighborhood is predominantly Sunni Muslim; a fight erupted between residents and a group of Shiites that was passing through.

Witnesses that night indicated that Mahmoud may have been a bystander -- his family was one of the few Shiite clans living in Qasqas. Neighbors said he had dashed downstairs to see what was happening on the street. It was unclear whether Mahmoud was shot by Sunnis or Shiites, or neither.

In interviews that night, his neighbors blamed Shiite gunmen. Opposition political leaders, meanwhile, blame gunmen loyal to the government.

Hours after the shooting, neighbors were still brawling in the dark streets. Furious young men roamed nearby; violence seemed to rage without plot or form. Men beat one another. One of Mahmoud's brothers raced into the crowd, shirtless and hysterical. He smashed a bottle on the ground and threatened the crowd with its jagged neck.

"I want to kill the God of the people who killed my brother!" he yelled.

"I want to kill the biggest guy there!"

Some of the neighborhood's older men drew him aside. "No, no, don't talk like that," they said quietly. Soldiers from the Lebanese army had closed the road, and they waded repeatedly into the fighting.

"I called my brother in the [United Arab] Emirates and I told him, 'I think the civil war is starting,' " said 35-year-old Mohammed Hamood, a Sunni curtain shop owner who brandished a broom handle. "We shut our mouths a lot of times, but we won't go on like this. We won't stay in our homes. We will defend ourselves."

By the next day, Mahmoud's family had locked up its flat and decamped to the home of relatives in a nearby, predominantly Shiite neighborhood.

Anger is mounting by the day, especially between Sunnis and Shiites. Many Sunnis feel that their sect is under attack; they interpret the open-ended, Hezbollah-led demonstration as a Shiite power play against Sunnis. Their leaders urge them to stay home, but patience is thinning.

In rare comments to the Lebanese press, Lebanon's army commander warned that the military could soon lose control of the streets.

"The absence of political solutions, along with the recurrence of security incidents, particularly those with sectarian tinge, drains the army's resources and weakens its neutrality," Tuesday's newspapers quoted Gen. Michel Suleiman as saying. "This weakness will make the army unable to control the situation in all areas of Lebanon."

Galvanized by Mahmoud's death, Shiites and their Christian allies are growing frustrated by the government's seeming indifference to massive protests. Demonstrators used looming, incandescent images of the young man's face to stir up crowds camped outside government offices.

This treatment fits into a long-held Lebanese tradition. The ubiquitous faces of Hezbollah guerrillas who died fighting Israel are a trademark sight in southern Lebanon, used to stir loyalty for the cause -- and to remind everybody of the enemy to the south, Israel.

Nor are the anti-Syria politicians, who are clinging to power against Hezbollah's relentless political assault, above playing on popular sentiment. Banners and billboards all over Beirut remind passersby of the politicians and journalists who spoke out against Syria and were assassinated in the streets of Beirut.

When mourners marched Mahmoud's coffin through the streets, women came out onto their balconies and threw down fistfuls of rice. As snare drums crackled, the mourning men chanted slogans. They called former acting Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat a "Jew." They vowed to seize the prime minister's offices by force if he didn't resign.

As they carried the body through the cemetery gates, Mahmoud's brother fainted. The other men scooped him up and carried him through the crowd. Skinny and dressed all in black, he flopped lifelessly, his head lolling, his arms spread in a Christ-like way. The men laid him on a flat tombstone and slapped his cheeks to revive him.

"The love of my heart!" the mother wailed, stumbling after the body in Islamic head scarf. "My child! They took you from me!"

Mourners ran through the graveyard, pushing at one another and clambering over tombstones, racing to arrive first at the hole dug into the earth.

"Don't step on the tombs!" chided security men from the Shiite Amal party. But their words went unheeded.

A waist-high boy pushed through the crowd, turned back to his family and yelled, "You can see everything from here!" Women stood under an arch of jasmine and beat their cheeks in grief. "Siniora, may God take his revenge on you," one of them said.

Whitney Houston's rendition of "I Will Always Love You" played at the grave. The mourners opened their palms to heaven and recited verses from the Koran. They broke off branches from a flowering tree overhead and dropped them into the grave.

Men were still smoothing earth over the grave when, out at the cemetery gates, another man already was bellowing instructions to retreating mourners. He urged them to go downtown, to demonstrate "in the face of a despotic government."*

megan.stack@latimes.com

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