Finger on a hair trigger as Lebanon faces Sunni-Shia clashes on daily basis

Army remains a fragile bulwark against communal conflict

Hizbullah memorial: captured Israeli tank lies amid other remnants of battle. Photograph: Hamzah Tahan

Hizbullah memorial: captured Israeli tank lies amid other remnants of battle. Photograph: Hamzah Tahan


The outgoing lane from Beirut to the ancient port of Sidon is open but there is a steady stream of traffic into Beirut from the south. At the entrance to Sidon, the massive Sunni mosque built by the slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri is surrounded by yellow crime scene tape to prevent potential car bombers from parking explosive-laden vehicles.

On August 23rd, 47 people were killed and hundreds wounded after two car bombs tore through congregants leaving two mosques after Friday prayers in the northern port city of Tripoli. Since then security at mosques around the country has been tightened.

In Sidon in June, the army fought and defeated ultra-conservative Salafi gunmen loyal to fugitive Sunni cleric Ahmed Assir who ranted against Shias and Hizbullah at a mosque in the Abra suburb. Residents, fearing more clashes, have begged the authorities to prevent his return.

As Lebanon confronts daily Sunni-Shia sectarian spillover from the war in neighbouring Syria, the country’s 70,000- strong army – 30 per cent Christian and 70 per cent Sunni-Shia – remains a fragile bulwark against communal conflict.

Tensions in Lebanon are reflective of the wider Sunni-Shia rift which pits Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, and Turkey against Syria due to its alliance with Iran, Iraq, and Hizbollah, the most powerful political force in Lebanon.

The road to Nabatiyeh winds through wooded hillsides and runs between single-storey, jerry-built village shops and flats, repair garages, and cafes. Cars are backed up at the Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance to Nabatiyeh, in the Shia mountain heartland. Fifty meters further on is a checkpoint manned by local lads who wave us through. We swing past the husseiniya, the main Shia mosque, devoid of yellow tape.

Cars park three deep along the wide road in the commercial area. Shops are flush with customers. Women entering the souq have their bags checked by volunteers. People from the villages in this area shop here or in Tyre, on the coast further south, rather than Sidon, traditionally a Sunni town, where Shia outsiders are viewed with suspicion. Christians circulate freely in Shia and Sunni areas – for now.

We climb to Mleeta on a road flanked by Hizbullah’s yellow flags. Here a mountain-top memorial built by the Shia movement honours the thousands of guerrillas who fought and hundreds who died to end Israel’s 22-year occupation of the south. The lookout point offers a panorama of Iklim al-Tuffah, the region of the apples, and the towns and villages liberated in 1985 as well as a distant view of the border lands freed in 2000.

A walk through the iron-clad tunnels deep in the mountain reveals just how well prepared fighters were for the task of regaining Lebanese land.

Hizbollah, Lebanon’s dominant political party, is the elephant in every smoke-filled cafe and every political gathering in the country. Since March, Lebanon has stumbled along under a caretaker government because the rival Hizbollah-led March 8th and anti-Hizbollah Sunni-dominated March 14th movements cannot work out a power-sharing formula although they have agreed on Tamam Salam as prime minister.

Lebanese soldiers peer into cars at a checkpoint solidified by armoured scout cars at the entrance to Shia-majority south Beirut.

As local youths give us the go-ahead at their checkpoint further on, three shots ring out, halting traffic for a moment while armed bystanders pursue a thug who attempted to rob a lottery ticket vendor. Lebanon’s finger is on a hair trigger.