Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Deadly Déjà Vu in Lebanon’s Second City

Gunmen fire their weapons during clashes between Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, 21 August 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Omar Ibrahim)
Published Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Tripoli, Lebanon - The clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, have raised many questions that remain unanswered. In particular, there were rumors about the creation of a “Sunni military council” in the North as a response to the “military wings” of various clans that have emerged recently.
The Lebanese military waited nearly 24 hours before intervening to put a stop to the fighting. This was despite the fact that four persons had been killed and more than 40 injured.

This delay in taking action gave the impression that the political and security officials involved had washed their hands of the open wound in Tripoli. Those who acted were satisfied with issuing press statements and attending meetings. But nothing was done to put an end to the bloodshed which has plagued the city, on and off, for more than four years.

The latest battle revealed the profound depth of the crisis between the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tebbaneh, with its Sunni majority, and Jabal Mohsen, where the Alawi community is concentrated. An innocent children’s game with plastic bead guns in Baal al-Darawish, which separates the two neighborhoods, led to violent clashes with all kinds of real weapons during the Eid al-Fitr holidays.

A Sunni Military Council

A few days before the incident, the imam of al-Taqwa mosque sheikh Salem al-Rafei called for the “creation of a military council for the Sunni sect in Lebanon” during last Friday’s sermon.
However, Islamist figures who met with Rafei following his statement said that it was taken out of context.

“He said in his sermon that we have to live together as Lebanese. But if we cannot do so, then let each group of us live in isolation from the others. And if we are attacked, we need to create a military council to defend our existence,” they indicated.

Despite the uncertainty over Rafei’s statements, Islamist sources maintained that preparations “are underway to create a [Sunni] military council and the people are available and ready.”

The announcement of the new military council was not well-received – neither from the politicians, nor from the sheikhs. One of the few exceptions was the preacher Omar al-Bakri.

He explained that the military council will not be “an institution or party. Rather, it is a willingness to confront the challenges posed by Syrian regime supporters in Lebanon.”

Although Bakri agreed that Rafei’s step was “a reaction to the declarations and deeds of the Mokdad clan and because the Syrian regime was using his supporters to export its crisis to Lebanon.”

Another serious development in the last two days caught the eyes of many observers. A number of Salafi extremists, some connected with the Fatah al-Islam case, visited Islamist and political groups close to March 8.

They called for “a united stand” and gave them a choice that was more like a veiled threat to choose between loyalty to the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon or joining their side.
One of those who met the Salafi delegation said that he had an intense discussion with them, which revealed that there was a major “misunderstanding” between the two sides.
He told the delegation that “sectarian and political incitement practiced by some in Lebanon, leads Islamist forces, such as the Salafis, to fall unintentionally into the trap of serving the US-Israeli project in Lebanon,” urging them to radically reconsider their politics.

Clashes in the Streets

One the streets of Tripoli, warring groups used automatic rifles, rockets, and artillery shells, blocking most of the city’s roads and markets, in addition to the highway to Akkar at al-Maloula and the Abu Ali River roundabouts due to sniper fire.

In addition to civilian casualties, the more serious development in the field was the unprecedented series of attacks on Lebanese military posts. Tuesday morning, a group of unknown individuals threw a hand grenade at an army post in al-Baqar, injuring four soldiers and an officer.

Political Reactions

Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged “the peaceloving people of Tripoli not to allow anyone to pull them into conflicts that would only lead to death, devastation, and destruction, or become fodder for other people’s battles.” He asked the army and security forces command “to work at maximum capacity to stop these absurd battles.”

Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara held a meeting at his home to discuss the latest developments in the city. He was joined by the head of military intelligence in the north Amer al-Hassan and military intelligence commander in Tripoli Ahmad Adra.

A similar meeting was held for Bab al-Tebbaneh cadres in the Harba mosque in the neighborhood.

After his meeting, Kabbara held the Syrian regime responsible for the clashes. He accused some army soldiers and officers of firing indiscriminately, “leading to the fall of innocent victims.”

The Tripoli MP called for the accountability of those responsible for “these actions, which would put an end to such irresponsible practices. Otherwise, we will have to a firmer stand.”

“Leading figures in Tebbaneh agreed on an immediate ceasefire,” he declared. But the agreement never materialized and the clashes continued with varying intensity.

“Misunderstanding” with Eid

The latest clashes also had repercussions on the relationship between the Lebanese army and the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party (ADP) in Jabal Mohsen.
A substantial army force surrounded the office of the secretary general of the ADP Rifaat Eid, with contradictory information emerging about the reasons and motivation behind this move.

Some sources said the army was working on reinforcing security to protect Eid and his neighborhood. But a wide segment believed that it was a “preemptive” step by the military, which was investigating the circumstances behind an attack on its al-Baqar post earlier Tuesday.

The sources indicated that army intelligence believed that an Eid supporter from Jabal Mohsen may have been involved.

A source close to Eid preferred not to comment on the details of the incident. He told Al-Akhbar that “what happened was a misunderstanding that lasted no more than 10 minutes. That was the end of it. The issue was made clear and the army later withdrew with their equipment from the periphery of Eid’s office.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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