* Sunni-Shi'ite flare-up in port city could be bad omen
* Three killed when dispute over Shi'ite flags escalates
* Syrian war threatens to crack open Lebanon's sectarian
By Oliver Holmes
SIDON, Lebanon, Nov 12 If the war in Syria does
tip its precariously balanced neighbour Lebanon into sectarian
conflict, as many fear, this could be the way it starts.
A year ago, a few Shi'ite flags in a mostly Sunni Muslim
part of the port city of Sidon might not have caused much
But on Sunday, when supporters of the Sunni cleric Ahmad
al-Assir tried to tear down religious and political banners put
up by Shi'ites to mark their holy day of Ashura this week, they
triggered a shootout in which three people were killed.
A day after the battle, the worst exchange of fire in the
mostly Sunni city since the 1975-90 civil war, shops remained
closed and soldiers with machineguns were inspecting identity
cards and looking inside cars at hastily erected checkpoints.
The incident highlights how tensions between Sunnis and
Shi'ites in Lebanon have grown since the start of Syria's
uprising, which pits mostly Sunni Muslims against the
establishment of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, most of whom
belong to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
With memories of their own civil war still vivid, leaders of
Lebanon's sectarian-based political factions have until now
tried to minimise points of friction to avoid upsetting the
careful balance that has kept the peace since 1990.
But the assassination of a top anti-Syrian intelligence
officer in Beirut last month, blamed by anti-Assad groups on
Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, has left Sunnis in
particular feeling they have lost an important protector.
On Monday, Sunni gunmen, some of them masked, paraded with
Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers as hundreds of Assir
supporters, some carrying Islamist flags, attended the burial of
their side's two dead at the entrance to Sidon.
The fighters said there would be no action unless Assir gave
an order. "We don't have plans for Ashura," said one.
Until a year ago, Assir was relatively unknown. But his
fiery speeches against powerful Shi'ite leader Sayyed Hassan
Nasrallah and protests against Assad have won him the allegiance
of many devoted Lebanese Sunnis, especially hardliners.
His office is on a hill in a Sunni area of Sidon called
Abra. Several blocks around his mosque were barricaded off by
heavily armed men on Monday, many of them clearly identified as
conservative Sunnis by their beards and shaven heads. Some
"Over the past few days we noticed that Hezbollah had
started putting Hassan Nasrallah's flags in our areas," said
Assir, easily identifiable by the foot-long greying beard that
he wears over his black jalabaya robe.
He told Reuters that when his supporters tried to stop this,
they had been attacked by the Shi'ite gunmen.
Some witnesses and residents said Assir's supporters had
been armed, but he said: "We went peacefully to those areas."
Security sources said Hezbollah fighters, the only faction
allowed to keep arms under Lebanon's post-war settlement, had
not taken part in the fighting.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a strong supporter
of Assad and backed by Shi'ite Iran, said the events in Sidon
were "unfortunate" and aimed at creating strife.
But Sheikh Maher Hamoud, Shi'ite imam of the al-Quds mosque
in Sidon and close to Hezbollah, went further, saying Shi'ites
in the city were entitled to celebrate their rituals. Ashura,
with its scenes of collective grieving, is perhaps the most
emotive of these.
"What right does anyone have to rip down flags in an area? A
quarter of that area are Shi'ites. They have lived there for
years and should be allowed to put up flags," Hamoud said.
Ashura marks the killing of Imam Hussein bin Ali, grandson
of the Prophet Muhammad, by Umayyad forces at the battle of
Kerbala in Iraq in 680, the culmination of a power struggle that
ushered in the great Sunni-Shi'ite divide which still shapes the
Middle East's political map.
Sami al-Zain, head of the Harat Saida district where the
clashes took place, told Reuters in his offices that the area
had rarely had problems until Assir showed up.
"We have Sunnis, Shi'ites, Druze, Palestinians. What else?
We have some Christians; there is a church down the road," he
"Yesterday, someone was trying to create strife. Yesterday
we had this crazy Assir," he said, sitting in front of a picture
of Nabih Berri, speaker of parliament and head of the
Hezbollah-aligned Shi'ite Amal movement.
Zain laughed off Assir's claim to non-violence: "How can you
say you're peaceful when you all carry guns?"
At the Harat Saida roundabout, the yellow and green
Hezbollah flag still flew high on Monday, and another marking
Ashura fluttered from trees. Soldiers ushered cars through the
Assir said the situation in Sidon and in Lebanon had changed
since the killing of Wissam al-Hassan, who was leading an
investigation that implicated Syria and Hezbollah in the 2005
assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni.
Hezbollah denies involvement in either attack, but many
Sunnis feel they have lost another bulwark against Syrian and
"Before, the situation was different ... Wissam al-Hassan
hadn't been killed," Assir said.
At the funeral on Monday, Assir's men chanted: "No to
Hezbollah and No to Berri!"
The cleric said there would be no retaliation for the death
of his men for now, but added darkly: "Our blood is very