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LEBANON: Sunni-Shiite rift continues to claw at nation's fragile peace

September 3, 2010 |  8:09 am

Gunmen AFP ahbash hezbIn Lebanon, it can be hard to tell where politics ends and tribal loyalties begin. 

So when fighting broke out in Beirut last week between supposedly allied Sunni and Shiite groups, it wasn't long before the situation devolved into a scene that's been replayed throughout Lebanon's history: gunmen in the street and Beirut residents holed up, trying to piece together tidbits from the news and word of mouth.

At least three people were killed in the fighting, including a high-ranking official from the militant Shiite group Hezbollah who clashed with members of a Sunni movement known as the Ahbash.

Hezbollah and the Ahbash share strong ties to Syria, but the fallout appears to have united the Ahbash with its former Sunni rivals while Hezbollah claims the clashes are a deliberate attempt to delegitimize its weapons arsenal.

"Everyone is armed; within five minutes they all had weapons ready," said Walid Zaghloul, a 33-year-old sales assistant who lives just one block from the Ahbash-controlled mosque where the fighting took place in the Bourj Abi Haidar area.

Despite assurances from both sides that the fighting erupted over a personal dispute, the speed with which it escalated and spread to neighboring areas has reopened the issue of armed groups in the capital, pitting figures from the United States and the Saudi-backed coalition government against Hezbollah, which claims its weapons are for fighting Israel.

Analysts say the outbreak of violence is unlikely to be repeated, but the aftershocks have widened the sectarian fault lines that scar Lebanon's fractious political landscape.

"The tension [between Sunnis and Shiites] is definitely worse ... but whether it can be resolved will all depend on the situation on the ground," Zaghloul said.

Based on media reports and interviews with local residents, last Tuesday's fighting appears to have begun with a personal dispute over a parking spot that may have ignited existing tensions between the two parties.

"[Ahbash officials] were not very happy about the attitude of their allies," Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank, told Babylon & Beyond, citing disagreements over the 2009 elections that resulted in the Ahbash boycotting the vote.

"On the policy level between the two movements, Ahbash is supportive of the resistance [Hezbollah's standing army] and Damascus, but in the daily politics, in the elections, the local power-sharing, there are tensions between the two parties," she said.

Tuesday's clashes lasted several hours, rattling the night with gunfire and explosions that soon spread to nearby neighborhoods that have been flash points for Sunni-Shiite clashes in the past. Shaky, handheld-camera footage of gunmen in the streets that was broadcast on local TV channels was reminiscent of the May 2008 clashes that saw bloody battles between Hezbollah fighters and Sunni gunmen supported by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Bourj Abi Haidar is a politically and religiously mixed neighborhood where Hezbollah, the Ahbash and the Shiite movement Amal all maintain a presence. The leadership of Hezbollah and the Ahbash rushed to issue a joint statement within hours of the clashes, emphasizing that the violence was an isolated incident with no sectarian or political repercussions. Ten people have reportedly been arrested in connection with the fighting.

The incident in Bourj Abi Haidar initially baffled most observers, who saw the fighting as counterproductive for both parties. The clashes overshadowed a planned speech by Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, tainted the party's image as a disciplined fighting force and gave an opening to its political rivals to question its arms. The Ahbash are politically weak and historically maligned by most mainstream Sunni movements.

But despite the Ahbash's fraught history with the Sunni political and religious leadership, both Hariri, leader of the largest Sunni party, and Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani toured the affected area in an apparent show of support for residents.

Hezbollah responded with an uncharacteristically blunt attack on Hariri, accusing him of dealing with the clashes as a sectarian chieftain rather than a statesman, according to the Lebanese daily As-Safir.

"Hariri never liked the Ahbash, but now there is a sectarian affiliation," said Zaghloul, the sales assistant. "I hope they ban weapons, but I don't trust the government or the army to follow through."

Nehid Sinnu, 28, owns a small shop in the neighborhood and lives nearby. She said there was some tension between the Ahbash and Hezbollah leading up to the clashes but that she's not worried it will lead to more violence.

"There was some tension, something political, but I don't know the details," she said. "The Ahbash thought Hezbollah was trying to get rid of them, clear them from the area; that's what they thinking."

"It was a personal fight, but it ignited a problem that was there." she added. "It's over now."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Gunmen on the streets of Bourj Abi Haidar last week have sparked debate about the prevalence of arms in Beirut. Credit: Agence France-Presse