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Continued: Deadly clashes between army and Sunni extremists present a test for Lebanon's weak government

  • Article by: BARBARA SURK , Associated Press
  • Last update: June 24, 2013 - 3:50 PM

He kept local and international media entertained by pulling stunts such as riding his bicycle and getting his hair cut in public while he openly challenged and taunted Hezbollah like few had dared before. He even publicly criticized Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah — something few would do in Lebanon.

In February, al-Assir caused a stir when he and hundreds of his bearded supporters arrived in buses at a ski resort in the Christian heartland, where residents set up roadblocks to try to keep him out.

He teamed up with Fadel Shaker, a once-prominent Lebanese singer-turned Salafist, who took to reciting verses of the Quran at al-Assir's protests. Shaker's brother, a close aide to al-Assir, was killed in confrontations with the army Monday, the National News Agency said.

Despite his attention-seeking tactics, al-Assir's rants against Hezbollah resonated with many Sunnis who are bitter about Hezbollah's increasingly dominant role in Lebanese politics.

Many in the Western-backed coalition known as March 14, headed by Hariri's son, Saad, quietly backed al-Assir as he launched his anti-Hezbollah tirades, and several Sunni politicians attacked the army, accusing it of bias in favor of Hezbollah.

Last month, after Hezbollah openly joined Assad's forces in the border town of Qusair, al-Assir called on Sunnis in Lebanon to enter the fight in in Syria, and posted pictures of himself allegedly in Qusair before its fall into government hands. He accused the army of inaction in the face of Hezbollah's growing involvement in Syria.

But al-Assir appears to have overplayed his cards by attacking the army, the only trusted institution in the country, triggering a backlash.

"The bravery of the army facing al-Assir's well-armed supporters has shamed Lebanese politicians," said Hisham Jaber, a retired army general who heads a Beirut-based think tank. He said the army appeared determined to remain neutral despite attempts by politicians to splinter it.

Sidon, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, has largely been spared the violence plaguing border areas. The clashes began Sunday in the Mediterranean city after troops arrested an al-Assir follower. The army says the cleric's supporters opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint.

Many people living on upper floors moved downstairs for cover or fled to safer areas. Some were seen carrying children. Others stayed locked in their homes or shops, afraid of getting caught in the crossfire. Gray smoke billowed over parts of the city.

Hezbollah appeared to be staying largely out of the clashes, although a few of its supporters in Sidon were briefly drawn into the fight Sunday, firing on al-Assir's supporters. At least one was killed, according to his relatives in the city who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety.

Last week, al-Assir supporters fought with pro-Hezbollah gunmen, leaving two dead.

Fighting also broke out in parts of Ein el-Hilweh, a teeming Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, where al-Assir has supporters. Islamist factions in the camp lobbed mortar rounds at military checkpoints around the camp.

Tension also spread to the north in Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city. Masked gunmen roamed the city center, firing in the air and forcing shops and businesses to shut down in solidarity with al-Assir. Dozens of gunmen also set fire to tires, blocking roads. The city's main streets emptied out, but there was no unusual military or security deployment.

"The Syrian fire is beginning to devour Lebanon, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more danger there is for Lebanon to implode," Gerges said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem blamed the violence in Lebanon on the international decision to arm the rebels, saying that it will only serve to prolong the fighting in Syria and will affect Lebanon.

"What is going in Sidon is very dangerous, very dangerous," he told reporters in Damascus. "We warned since the start that the impact of what happens in Syria on neighboring countries will be grave."

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