Growing Sunni anger in Lebanon against army adds dangerous twist to country's instability

The Associated Press

FILE -- In this May 15, 2012, file photo, Lebanese army soldiers patrol after a clashes in the old market of the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon. From radical preachers to irreverent taxi drivers, anger is spreading through Lebanon’s Sunni community toward the country’s military, adding a dangerous twist to Lebanon’s instability, already shaken by relentless bombings. Many Sunnis accuse the military of siding with their rivals, the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, as sectarian tensions grow in Lebanon, stoked by the civil war in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

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By DIAA HADID, Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — From radical preachers to irreverent taxi drivers, anger is spreading through Lebanon's Sunni community toward the country's military, adding a dangerous twist to Lebanon's instability, already shaken by relentless bombings.

Many Sunnis accuse the military of siding with their rivals, the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, as sectarian tensions grow in Lebanon, stoked by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Since December, four attacks have killed five soldiers, with warnings of more to come.

The tensions add another trigger for potential conflict within Lebanon. The sectarian divide is growing increasingly explosive, with Sunnis largely backing their brethren in Syria, while Shiites and Hezbollah support the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. That violence has ricocheted into Lebanon, with Sunni militants carrying out more than a dozen bombings against Shiite areas since July, killing dozens and terrifying the country.

As Lebanon's military moves against the militants, they risk fueling further anger among the wider Sunni community — not because there's much sympathy for extremists, but from the perception the army is punishing Sunnis for backing rebels while allowing Hezbollah to help Assad.

"The army doesn't act fairly. They crush Sunnis with their feet," said grocer Umm Zaher, 56, in a Sunni neighborhood of the Lebanese capital Beirut. She and most Sunnis interviewed by The Associated Press declined to give their full names, fearing retaliation from the army or Hezbollah.

"The army is theirs," said taxi driver Khaled, 32, referring to Hezbollah.

Blue flags fluttered from nearby street lights, the symbol of a Sunni-dominated political bloc once led by assassinated Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"It's everywhere in Sunni areas that people feel this way," said Sunni cleric Raed Hlayhel of Tripoli.

Criticizing the army was once rare. The institution is widely seen as a unifying force, drawing recruits across Lebanon's patchwork of Christian and Muslim sects. On the street, people often address soldiers as "watan," Arabic for "homeland."

The army is an important economic vehicle for Sunni advancement, and they compose at least one-third of its forces, said Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Lebanon's military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Nevertheless, that and the offer of $3 billion to the army from Saudi Arabia, an ally of Lebanese Sunnis, has not shaken the perception among Sunnis that the army is against them.

Lebanese army officials didn't respond to requests for comment.

Sunnis long have resented Hezbollah's dominance of Lebanon's politics and the untouchable, state-within-a-state status it enjoys. Its guerrilla force also is stronger than the military. Sunnis began souring toward the army in May 2008, when Hezbollah-loyal gunmen rampaged through Sunni areas of Beirut, after years of political disputes, and soldiers did nothing to stop them.

Sunnis now accuse Lebanon's army of targeting their brethren funneling weapons, helping and harboring Syrian rebels, while ignoring Hezbollah's actions. In June, clashes erupted between Lebanese soldiers and followers of fiery Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Asir, a prominent opponent of Hezbollah. Hezbollah supporters briefly joined the fighting alongside soldiers, reviving Sunni grievances.

The army is being pushed into an "awkward position," said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "It is perceived to be confronting Sunni extremists, while at the same time, it seems to be collaborating with the Shiite Hezbollah group," Kahwaji said.

Recent events underscore those tensions.

On Jan. 24, soldiers seized 24-year-old Sunni cleric Omar Atrash, suspecting he recruited suicide bombers, smuggled explosives and planned attacks. Fellow clerics claim he was tortured into making false confessions.