NEW YORK TIMES
Up North, Hothouse of Tension in Lebanon
By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: October 15, 2008
TRIPOLI, Lebanon — The crumbling streets of this ancient northern city are starting to resemble a battleground.
A string of bombings over the past two months has left at least 20 people dead, most of them Lebanese Army soldiers, and scores of wounded. Hard-line Sunni Islamist leaders have gained new followers here, fueling sectarian violence that has scarred the city and its economy. Already, the president of neighboring Syria has warned that northern Lebanon has become “a real source of extremism and a danger to Syria.”
But this being Lebanon, it is not clear what part of all this is terrorism and what is just election-year politics — or which of those is more dangerous.
Many Lebanese political leaders say Syria and its allies here — including the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has little power in northern Lebanon — are trying to win votes in the coming parliamentary elections by smearing their opponents with the image of Al Qaeda. Some openly accuse Syria of orchestrating the bombings.
“The north is the victim of terrorism, not the source of it,” said Ahmad Fatfat, a member of Parliament from the northern region of Dunnieh. “Someone is trying to send a message to the people, to make them believe the Sunnis of the north are the real danger in Lebanon.”
The absence of clear evidence makes such arguments inevitable. Even when the Lebanese authorities make an arrest — as they did on Sunday, accusing a jihadist cell of carrying out the bombings in Tripoli — basic questions persist because foreign powers have so often used such groups as proxies inside Lebanon in the past.
One thing is clear: Much is riding on the elections, scheduled for next spring. Hezbollah and its allies stand to gain a parliamentary majority for the first time. That would be another striking setback for American policy in the region, and would probably make Israel view all of Lebanon, not just Hezbollah, as its enemy in future wars.
At the same time, behind the accusations and counteraccusations about the bombings lies an indisputable fact: Sectarian tensions have grown worse in the north, feeding extremist sentiment and prompting more citizens to arm themselves.
The vast bulk of the population is Sunni Arab and supports Saad Hariri, the parliamentary leader of the Western-allied government majority that opposes Hezbollah. Sunnis were deeply angered in May, when Hezbollah briefly took over the capital and destroyed the offices of Mr. Hariri’s political movement and its media outlets.
After Hezbollah’s takeover, a low-level war broke out in Tripoli between two adjacent neighborhoods of the city, one Sunni, the other Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and allied with Syria. The fighting ended last month with a truce, but some violence has continued, and army officials say they expect more attacks.
At the same time, hard-line religion has spread among Tripoli’s large population of jobless young men, many of them disenchanted with Mr. Hariri’s secular leadership. The spread of Salafism, a puritanical current within Islam, has become a commonplace in the Lebanese press.
“A lot of young people have joined the Salafists since May,” said Fakher al-Ayoubi, a journalist from Tripoli and an expert on Islamist movements in the north.
“Some of them don’t even know how to pray, but they like the idea of fighting the Alawites and Hezbollah.”
There are dozens of militant factions in Tripoli alone, and many have gained new weapons since the neighborhood fighting began in May. The presence of the Palestinian camps, where Qaeda-style radicalism is known to flourish and where Lebanese security forces are barred from entering, makes it even harder to keep track of militants.
These germs of militancy have burst into violence before. During the summer of 2007, the Lebanese Army battled fighters from the militant group Fatah al Islam, which is aligned with Al Qaeda, in the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp. Many believe that the recent attacks on the army are revenge for the 2007 fighting, in which the camp was nearly leveled.
But Islamists in Tripoli say they believe that Syria fostered Fatah al Islam, and they bristle at the suggestion that Lebanese Sunnis would think of attacking the army. There are few families here without a relative in the army, whose troops in the north are themselves mostly Sunni.
“We don’t want anyone to attack the army; they are our brothers,” said Bilal Daqmaq, a cleric who openly says he admires Osama bin Laden and who served as a mediator between the army and Fatah al Islam during the 2007 battle. “What Fatah al Islam did was criminal and wrong.”
Like many other Islamists here, Mr. Daqmaq said he also believed that Syria was behind the recent attacks on the army. He said the leader of Fatah al Islam, Shaker al-Absi, had told him that Syria pushed him into a confrontation with the Lebanese government last year. It is well known that Mr. Absi, who remains at large, was released from a Syrian prison before becoming the leader of Fatah al Islam, though Syria denies that it had anything to do with him afterward.
Mr. Daqmaq and others like him say they have nothing to gain from sowing chaos in their own backyard, or from provoking confrontations with better-armed neighbors.
Since Hezbollah seized control of Beirut in May, Lebanon has formed a caretaker government, ending its long political crisis, and there have been several high-profile efforts to mend frayed relations between some of the major political parties. Even the Salafists announced an accord with Hezbollah in September, though it quickly collapsed.
But several Islamist leaders here said they were stockpiling weapons to be used for protection against Hezbollah or Syria. Their fears are not irrational: In the mid-1980s Syria invaded northern Lebanon and killed or imprisoned hundreds of Islamists.
Although Syria withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, it retains armed allies here — including the Alawite community in Tripoli — and a network of agents in the Lebanese security services.
The conflict here sometimes resembles a proxy war, with the Sunnis in the north drawing support, directly or indirectly, from Saudi Arabia, which is locked in a bitter diplomatic feud with Syria.
“It’s as if there were fire underground here all the time, and in May, it suddenly burst up onto the surface,” said Arabi, a 30-year-old Sunni man who fought in the Sunni-Alawite battles that raged in Tripoli through the spring and summer, and who goes by one name. His father was killed by the Syrians in 1986, and he believes that his destiny is to continue that struggle, he said.
Whether the fire will burst up from underground again remains to be seen. But the current atmosphere bodes poorly for peaceful elections.
Last month, thousands of Syrian soldiers deployed near the border with northern Lebanon. Syria said they were there to fight cross-border smuggling. In Lebanon, their presence was widely viewed as an effort at intimidation and reasserting control.
Many here say that effort is likely to backfire, further provoking the extremism Syria would like to control.
“In the past, Syria has killed many people here under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” said Mr. Daqmaq, the cleric. “But the difference now is that there is a big lion called Al Qaeda, and the Syrians fear it.”