Lebanon’s Sunnis teetering on the fault line of conflict

Special to The Times

The cleric’s question echoed off the walls of the mosque in one of Tripoli’s poorest neighborhoods -- and well beyond.

“What is happening to our community?” cried Sheik Mazen Mohammed. “Where are we heading?”

Many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, especially in the northern part of the country, are asking themselves the same question Mohammed posed during prayers on a recent Friday.

The community has been fractured by a battle between the Lebanese army and an extremist Sunni group inspired by Al Qaeda, and an ensuing government crackdown against Islamists. More radical Sunnis are facing off against moderate supporters of the U.S.-backed government.


“We’re beginning to see cracks in the Sunni community,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. Khashan, like the Sunni-led government, charged that Syria had helped the Fatah al Islam militant group establish itself in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon in order to create instability.

“Syria is trying to cause the Sunni sect to splinter,” he said.

Near the camp, in the Sunni-dominated city of Tripoli, home to about 500,000 people, a complex set of allegiances have now been spelled out in blood.

In the Tebanne neighborhood, where children play barefoot in trash-littered streets and dilapidated buildings still bear bullet holes from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Sunni families have buried sons -- both soldiers and militants.

On June 10, thousands of people rallied in Tripoli to voice their support for the Lebanese army.

Banners supporting the army are on display all over the city, but so are the Muslim extremists’ black flags as well as graffiti expressing support for holy war against Americans.


Militant foothold

Fatah al Islam, which is holed up in the Nahr el Bared refugee camp, is a mix of fighters from other Arab countries and young Lebanese men from the area, where some Islamist groups subscribe to Al Qaeda’s ideology.

“The phenomenon of Fatah al Islam is a result of the marginalization, injustice and harm that Muslims are subjected to,” said Daiat Shahal, a prominent religious scholar in Tripoli. However, he said, “this war is between Sunnis and will eventually weaken the Sunnis.”

Most Sunni religious leaders with ties to the government have distanced themselves from the Islamist group. And a committee of Palestinian clerics has held talks with the militants in an attempt to end the fighting, the bloodiest the nation has seen since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Under a 1969 agreement, Palestinians have been responsible for internal security in all of Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps, which are home to about 400,000 people.

“We fear that if the battle continues, its effect would be detrimental on Sunnis,” said Sheik Mohammed Haj, who has participated in the negotiations.

But Lebanese security officials say there can be no negotiations with Fatah al Islam, which they consider part of a dangerous network of Islamist radicals who planned to attack foreign embassies in Beirut and United Nations peacekeepers in the south. They also accuse the group of plotting to blow up bridges and create an Islamic emirate in the north of the country.

Northern Lebanon is dominated by a diverse community of Sunnis who found common ground after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni. There is suspicion that Syria was behind Hariri’s killing. The government in Damascus has denied it.

Opposition parties allied with Syria and Iran have said that the party led by his son, Saad Hariri, has financed Sunni radical groups in the north as a bulwark against the Shiites in case of a civil war. Opponents allege that he has acted with tacit approval or help from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

U.S.-backed politicians, however, contend that Fatah al Islam is backed by Damascus, which supports the Shiite group Hezbollah.


Syrian dominance

But Sunni Islamists have a long, acrimonious history with Syria.

During the 1980s and 1990s, when Syria dominated Lebanon, Syrians killed and imprisoned hundreds of Lebanese Islamists. In 2000, Syrian-backed Lebanese forces clashed with Sunni militants in the mountains above Tripoli and hundreds were arrested.

Five years later, after Syrian troops were forced to withdraw, the Lebanese government released the detainees in a general amnesty that some believe was intended to win Sunni votes in that year’s parliamentary elections. The north voted overwhelmingly for Saad Hariri’s group.

Lebanese authorities recently have arrested hundreds of Islamists in Tripoli and beyond. Some of the suspects have been charged with terrorism, but the majority have been held without charges or access to lawyers and family. There have been widespread allegations of abuse.

A few weeks ago, police shot and killed Bilal Mahmoud as he was leaving the mosque where Sheik Mohammed preached. Local newspapers quoted police as saying he was shot as he prepared to throw a grenade. But Mohammed said Mahmoud was unarmed when he was gunned down. “He was killed coldly among his people.”

Local leaders warn that if the fighting and the arrests continue, it could further radicalize the community here.

“The Sunni community is frustrated,” said Sheik Samir Rifai, a prominent cleric in Tripoli. “Without realizing it, they will make the whole Sunni sect an ally of this gang called Fatah al Islam.”


Times staff writer Louise Roug in Beirut contributed to this report.