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Beirut gun battles raise fears Syria crisis will stoke conflict

Two people were killed in the Lebanese capital in clashes between Sunni groups divided over the uprising in Syria.

Crowds of mourners and gunmen carry the body of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, a Sunni Muslim cleric, during his funeral at his hometown at Al Bireh, north Lebanon, yesterday.
Crowds of mourners and gunmen carry the body of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, a Sunni Muslim cleric, during his funeral at his hometown at Al Bireh, north Lebanon, yesterday.

BEIRUT // Two people were killed in the Lebanese capital in clashes between Sunni groups divided over the uprising in Syria.

The violence raised concern the crisis was making further inroads into Lebanon, and tested the leadership of Sunni politicians.

Fifteen more people were injured in gun battles in a Sunni neighbourhood of Beirut between a small pro-Syrian party and fighters linked to the Future Movement of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, a staunch critic of Damascus.

The deadliest fighting in the capital in four years was triggered by the killing of a prominent Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, and a bodyguard on Sunday.

Lebanese soldiers reportedly gunned down Abdul Wahid, a critic of the Syrian regime, while he drove through a checkpoint in the north of the country.

The military on Sunday expressed regret over the incident and called for an investigation.

But angry supporters demonstrated in northern Lebanon, setting tyres alight and blocking roads.

Yesterday, mourners fired automatic weapons into the air at Abdul Wahid's funeral in the city of Bireh and shouted slogans denouncing the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally, the Shiite political movement Hizbollah.

"Oh cleric, we want revenge against Nasrallah and Bashar," yelled one mourner, referring to Hizbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

The recent violence in Lebanon prompted the acting spokesman for the US state department, Mark Toner, to say in a statement: "We are concerned by the security situation in Lebanon …

"The United States expresses its sincere condolences for the loss of life … We call on all parties to exercise restraint and respect for Lebanon's security and stability."

The worsening sequence of events highlight how instability in Syria can easily splash into Lebanon and unsettle the difficult relations between its diverse and often feuding religious groups.

They have fiercely opposing views on the rebellion in Syria, which exerted military control over Lebanon in its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

The flare-up has also exposed fissures within groups, such as with the fighting among Sunnis yesterday in Beirut's Tariq Jadidah neighbourhood.

Gunmen wielding machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades battled for several hours, setting alight vehicles and spraying with gunfire a seven-storey apartment building used by the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party.

"We're scared there will be another war here, but what can we do? Our politics are being controlled from the outside these days," Rami Sangari, 27, said as he watched soldiers clear the debris left by the fighting.

His fiancee, Maya, lives on the second level of the building targeted during the clashes. "She hid in the bathroom for five hours," Mr Sangari said.

Lebanon's Sunni community has been struck by a number of setbacks that have caused their political influence to wane compared with other groups, such as Shiites under Hizbollah, who are backed with money and arms from Damascus and Iran.

That has bred resentment, said Imad Salamey, professor of political science and international relations at the Lebanese American University.

"The sense of injustice felt by Sunnis is running high because they feel the entire political system and government structure are not fair in terms of dealing with their concerns and dealing with them in an equitable manner," Prof Salamey said.

He and other analysts attributed this to a number of incidents including the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former Sunni prime minister, and the storming of the capital's Sunni areas in 2008 by Hizbollah militiamen that killed as many as 80 people.

Last year, parliament's Hizbollah-led bloc orchestrated the fall of a government led by Mr Hariri's son, Saad.

Chahine Ghaith, a political-science professor at Lebanon's Notre Dame University, said a consequence of these tensions with Sunni politicians had been growing radicalisation among the public, especially with the ultra-conservative Sunni communities of Salafists near Tripoli.

Tripoli's Salafis, primarily from poorer areas in and around the city, in the past 10 days have staged large rallies supporting the largely Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria and fought with the city's minority community of Alawites.

The latter, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is in the same group of religions as is the Al Assad family.

The Salafis in Tripoli, inspired by the rise of Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and Tunisia, consider Lebanon's traditional Sunni political establishment as too moderate, Mr Ghaith said.

"The general trend is that the leadership is more moderate than the general masses," he said, adding that Lebanon's Sunnis feel more disenfranchised at a time when their brethren elsewhere in the region have been empowered politically.

That is why Saif Al Husamy, an Islamist leader, helped to organise the recent demonstrations in Tripoli. It was also a display of defiance to Sunni leaders in Beirut, whom he called "corrupt".

"We have been neglected by our politicians - Sunni politicians," Mr Al Husamy said.

"Even though we are from the same group, they neglect us in terms of political support and jobs."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press