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Lebanon's Sunni population at odds

The Baltimore Sun

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- 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?" Sheik Mazen Mohammed cried. "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 Sunni community has been fractured by a battle between the country's army and an extremist Sunni group inspired by al-Qaida, and an ensuing crackdown by the government 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 government, charged that Syria has helped the Fatah al-Islam 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.

In the nearby Sunni-dominated city of Tripoli, home to about 500,000 people, a complex set of allegiances has been spelled out in blood.

In the Tebanne neighborhood, where children play barefoot in trash-strewn streets and dilapidated buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes from Lebanon's 15-year civil war, Sunni families have buried four sons - two soldiers and two militants.

On a recent Sunday, 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 black flags signifying fundamentalist Muslim faith as well as graffiti expressing support for holy war against Americans.

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 fundamentalist groups subscribe to al-Qaida'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 religious scholar. However, he added: "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 in the past days, a committee of Palestinian clerics has held talks with the militants to end the bloodiest fighting since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Since a 1969 agreement, Palestinians have been responsible for internal security in Lebanon's 12 refugee camps, 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 security officials say there can be no negotiations with Fatah al-Islam, which they consider part of a network of Islamic 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 instigated Hariri's killing. Damascus has denied it.

During parliamentary elections two years ago, Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, won an overwhelming victory in the north. Opposition parties allied with Syria and Iran have claimed that Hariri's political group, with tacit approval or help from Saudi Arabia and the U.S., has financed Sunni radical groups in the north to use as a bulwark against the Shiites in case of a civil war.

U.S.-backed politicians, for their part, contend Fatah al-Islam is backed by Damascus.

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

During the 1980s, when Syria dominated Lebanon, Syrians killed and imprisoned hundreds of Lebanese Islamists. In 2000, Syrian-backed Lebanese security forces and Sunni militants clashed in the mountains above Tripoli, and hundreds were arrested. Five years later, after the pullout of Syrian troops, Lebanese government leaders released the detainees in a general amnesty that some believe was intended to win northern Sunni votes in that year's parliamentary elections.

In the past weeks, Lebanese authorities have arrested hundreds of Islamists in Tripoli and beyond, charging some with terrorism but detaining the majority without charges or access to lawyers and family.

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

Raed Rafei writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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