Middle East

Lebanese dismissive of Sunni militia call

A Sunni Muslim gunman during clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, on 22 August 2012
Image caption Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, has been the scene of deadly sectarian fighting over the Syria conflict

They move in groups of four or five, with black bands bearing the words Allahu Akbar on their foreheads, and rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in their hands.

It is a show of constant readiness for combat, and it is becoming a common sight in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city and scene of the bloodiest fighting related to the Syrian conflict so far.

Since 2005, when Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon, Tripoli has seen more than 10 rounds of clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, many of them over differences in positions towards the regime in Syria.

The latest one last week left at least 15 people dead and the city and the whole country reeling.

The Alawites share the same faith as the ruling clan of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria - an offshoot of Shia Islam - and most of them strongly support the Syrian regime.

Amid the growing tension, an influential Sunni sheikh in Tripoli, Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, has put forward a suggestion which took many people by surprise: the establishment of what he called a Sunni defence council.

The young fighters roaming the streets of Tripoli are likely to form the core cell of the military council if it ever comes to life.

Sheikh Rafei presented it as the only way for Sunnis to protect themselves if the state and the army proved unable to do so.

Delicate balance

Many Sunnis have been complaining about the heavily armed Shia party, Hezbollah, saying it upsets the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon. Mainstream Sunni politicians have been calling for its disarmament.

Hezbollah says it only wants to defend Lebanon against Israeli attacks, but its opponents say the militant group wants to use its military might to gain political advantage.

They remember with a lot of bitterness what are referred to as the events of 7 May.

On that day in 2008, fighters from Hezbollah fought in street battles against militants from other Lebanese groups, following a government decision to dismantle Hezbollah's telecommunication network.

The battles ended in a swift victory for Hezbollah, a reversal of the decision, and a new government more in tune with the group's policies.

For the moment, Sheikh Rafei's suggestion is merely an idea.

It was announced during the Friday sermon in retaliation against the shocking appearance of the military wing of the Meqdad family, a Shia clan that kidnapped Syrians and a Turkish national in Lebanon, following the kidnapping of one of its members by rebels in Syria.

But even seen in this context, the idea of a military council sparked strong rejection, primarily from within the Sunni community itself.

The mufti of Tripoli and northern Lebanon, Malek al-Shaar, categorically rejected the idea.

"It's sheer madness and an illusion. It didn't come from a responsible person. It's nothing more than an impulsive and irrational reaction."

Mr Shaar is adamant the residents of Tripoli would not support such ideas, and that they are strong believers in the idea of a state with strong and efficient institutions.

About 500,000 persons live in Tripoli, the majority of them Sunnis, while the rest are Christians and Alawites.

The city brands itself as a haven of co-existence and moderation, rejecting extremism, often at a high price.

The suggested Sunni council brought to mind a precedent in the history of the city.

In 1982, a group of Salafi militant groups joined ranks under a so-called liberation party that tried to declare an Islamic emirate. It took the intervention of Syrian troops in a month-long battle in 1985 to root it out.

"But then things were very different from today," says Ghassan Riffi, a journalist and expert on Tripoli.

"In 1982, the country was drowning in a civil war, the state was not functioning and the army was divided. It's a very different situation from what we have today."

But "some Salafi groups are trying today to establish a stronger presence in political affairs in Tripoli," he adds.

Tripoli is not a border town, but its mixed demographics in a climate of political and sectarian radicalisation brought the conflict in Syria closer to it.

It now appears locked in a pattern of violent outbursts followed by periods of tense calm, as the rest of Lebanon anxiously awaits any signs of the violence spreading further south.

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