BEIRUT — The Lebanese city of Sidon exploded into widespread street violence Tuesday afternoon as supporters and opponents of the militant group Hezbollah traded artillery and small arms fire in response to an attack on a prominent Sunni Muslim opponent of the Shiite Muslim group, according to senior security officials and witnesses. At least one person was killed and nearly a dozen wounded, according to Lebanese security officials.
The fighting came after someone reportedly assaulted a vehicle that was carrying Amjad al Assir, the brother of a hard-line Sunni cleric who’s known throughout Lebanon for his support for the Syrian rebellion and his outspoken criticism of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and influence in Lebanon. Hezbollah has thousands of its fighters openly helping to suppress the Syrian rebellion, which has raged longer than two years.
Sheik Ahmad al Assir rose in prominence over the last year for his vehement criticism of Hezbollah, which reflects increasing sectarian tensions between the mostly Shiite supporters of the militant group and Sunnis who resent Shiites’ military and political power as well as Hezbollah’s open involvement in suppressing the mostly Sunni rebellion in Syria.
Assir has threatened repeatedly to drive Hezbollah supporters out of the mostly Sunni city of Sidon and he’s bragged about his alliance with rebel groups that are attempting to topple the neighboring regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while adopting much of the anti-Shiite rhetoric of Sunni radicals commonly associated with al Qaida, although he denies direct involvement in that group.
Clashes between Sunni backers of the rebellion and Hezbollah’s supporters have become commonplace throughout Lebanon, but Tuesday’s incidents reflected a major escalation in weaponry and intensity, according to a Syrian aid worker based in Sidon.
“It was bad. It started with attacks on apartments leased by Sunni supporters of Hezbollah and quickly turned into sniping and even artillery,” according to Mohammed, who as a Syrian refugee himself requested that his full name not be used. Both sides “were hitting major city areas with mortars and even a Grad rocket. I’ve never seen it that bad before. We had to halt operations and leave the city.”
The witness reported seeing a number of black sport utility vehicles – commonly associated with Hezbollah’s internal security wing – entering the city en masse as his organization withdrew its staff from the area.
According to a Lebanese security official based just outside Sidon, the incident with Assir occurred just after midday and fighting broke out at around 3:30 p.m. local time.
“We pushed in as many army units as we could as quickly as we could to contain the fighting,” said the official, who in keeping with official policies can’t be named in news reports. “Assir’s guys attacked an office with the Nasserite Movement in the Abra neighborhood in response. That office is known to be part of the support battalions of Hezbollah, and they quickly responded. The resistance also sent a number of its fighters into the area to support their Sunni allies.”
A Hezbollah commander reached in Beirut denied a major movement of fighters into the area.
“The support units in Sidon can handle this situation. We’re not going to get too involved in fighting between Sunni groups,” he said.
As night fell and clashes continued, Lebanese army officers released a statement threatening to open fire on any armed groups that failed to withdraw from the streets of the port city, even as fighting closed Lebanon’s north-south highway through Sidon and even expanded to its seaside area.
One supporter of Assir, who attends his Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, said by phone that Assir’s supporters wouldn’t attack the army.
"We are not against the Lebanese army. Prayer is our weapon today," he said, although fighting continued past nightfall.
Although a predominately Shiite organization, Hezbollah has trained and funded a series of nonsectarian military units of supporters in Sunni and Christian areas in order to maintain security and influence outside of its traditional Shiite villages and neighborhoods. These offices – widely considered direct wings of the group – often have come under attack in Sunni areas as neighborhoods become increasingly polarized against Hezbollah and Lebanon’s large Shiite population.
In a similar incident in May of last year, three people were killed and nearly a dozen wounded after the residents of a Sunni neighborhood in Beirut attacked the offices of a small group aligned with Hezbollah, forcing the group to send a special forces unit into the area to evacuate the office. Sunni groups have clashed regularly with Shiite villages in the northern Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border as tensions between the two communities mount over the civil war in Syria, where nearly 100,000 people have been reported killed. Tit-for-tat shootings and kidnapping in Bekaa have become regular occurrences but direct violence between Sunnis and Shiites has been rare in most Lebanese cities.
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, is the scene of regular clashes, however, including a wave of violence last month that killed nearly 30 people and wounded about 100.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.