North Lebanon city braces for next round of fighting

TRIPOLI, Lebanon Fri Sep 21, 2012 9:58am EDT

Libyan women hold pictures of their loved ones killed in last year's war during a national ''Martyrs' day'' in Tripoli September 16, 2012. REUTERS/Anis Mili

Libyan women hold pictures of their loved ones killed in last year's war during a national ''Martyrs' day'' in Tripoli September 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili

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TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - The guns are silent and fighters have disappeared from the streets of the north Lebanese city of Tripoli but the battle that flared last month, killing 16 people, is far from over.

Unrest in neighboring Syria, where 27,000 people have been killed in a conflict that is becoming increasingly sectarian, is deepening tensions between Tripoli's Sunni Muslim majority and Alawite minority.

Feuds between the two communities, which pre-date Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, fester beneath the daily bustle in shops and restaurants. Residents fear the clashes which paralyzed their city several times this year may erupt again at any time.

After the latest round of fighting in August, many meetings were held between clerics, local parliamentarians and local armed commanders to agree a ceasefire. But little was done to prevent a recurrence or hold anyone to account.

"Everyone here who fights has political cover. How come after every battle nobody is arrested?" said Abu Emad, a local dignitary who is close to the fighters.

"We haven't seen anyone put on trial for the deaths and the fighting," he said, lighting a cigarette and checking in case he was being overheard by other in the busy Tripoli cafe.

Salem, a lawyer from the city, said tensions are likely to flare again between Tripoli's Sunnis, who largely support the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, and the Alawite minority, an off-shoot of Shi'ite Islam to which Assad belongs.

"Nobody forgot anything. It is calm now but we all ask ourselves: Until when? We know this is not the last one."

Commanders of the rival forces say the fighting is fuelled by politicians channeling money and arms to the two sides, and residents accuse both pro- and anti-Assad forces of stirring up trouble.

They say Syria's allies in Lebanon want to create conflict to relieve pressure on Assad by diverting attention, while Assad's opponents hope the fighting could weaken Lebanon's government, which is led by the pro-Assad Shi'ite Hezbollah group and its allies.

Allegations of Syria's role in the tensions were heightened by the arrest of a pro-Assad former Lebanese minister, Michel Samaha, accused of forming "an armed gang" to incite sectarian fighting in northern Lebanon. Two Syrian officials have also been indicted in the same case.

On the other side of the showdown, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is a leading supporter of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims and Tripoli residents say hardline Sunni fighters in the city have Saudi backing.

Riyadh has long viewed the Assad government with distrust, pointing to its alliance with Shi'ite Iran which Saudi Arabia suspects of stirring up unrest in neighboring Bahrain and among its own Shi'ite minority.

SUNNI-SUNNI TENSION

Beyond the sectarian tension, a power struggle is simmering between Sunni Muslims seeking to lead the sect which under Lebanon's confessional system holds executive power through the position of prime minister.

"The conflict is going to be a Sunni-Sunni one sooner or later. It is only a matter of time," Abu Emad said.

Many Sunnis are loyal to former prime minister Saad al-Hariri, son of slain statesman Rafik al-Hariri. Others support current prime minister Najib Mikati who came to power after Hezbollah and its allies toppled Saad - a move which Saad Hariri's supporters condemned as a political coup.

While most Sunnis oppose Assad, some see him as an Arab nationalist leading the battle against Israel.

"I am with Bashar because he is a man of a state, he saw his country facing all these problems and he is dealing with it as a surgeon should be dealing with a disease - removing it."

Fighters are easily recruited in a city where deprivation and under investment have left people embittered and struggling to survive. Illiteracy is high and in recent battles children under 18 were seen carrying guns that were almost their size.

"Preparations are under way for the next round," said an Alawite commander. "What we have here is a ceasefire which does not address the reasons behind the fighting," blaming Islamists with regional agendas who he said were control of the city.

A Sunni commander who took part in every Tripoli street battle this year blamed politicians for igniting the violence.

"Because of the political and sectarian tension we feel in danger and we must pick up arms to defend ourselves," he said. "If they shut off the money and the weapons nobody will fight. But they have a political interest in igniting the situation."

Commanders say hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on new weapons including rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and sniper rifles, some shipped from Libya.

"Wounds are still open, people did not forget nor forgive," said a resident in the area who only identified himself as Bassam.

"Until this is solved by the government by making programs for people to talk to each other and forgive like South Africa nothing will change."

Nasser Murad, who was forced to shut his shoe store in Tripoli's main street last month during the height of the fighting, said it was only a matter of time before conflict broke out again.

"The embers are still hot under the ashes and all the factors that triggered this are still here," said the merchant. "Hatred is in the hearts".

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

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