BEIRUT — A Sunni Muslim cleric in Lebanon’s second largest city accused the Lebanese army Tuesday of failing to maintain its neutrality in the country’s sectarian rivalries amid widespread reports that it had fought alongside Hezbollah’s military wing in a battle against a rogue Sunni cleric last week.
Using language that for the first time directly criticized Lebanon’s prominent Christian minority, Sheikh Salem al Rafehi told a collection of Sunni clerics in Tripoli that the Lebanese Armed Forces are working with Hezbollah and its militia allies in Tripoli against Lebanon’s increasingly bitter Sunni population.
“The military is collaborating with Hezbollah to fight Sunnis,” Rafehi told supporters during a meeting held to discuss a wave of violence between Sunnis and a pro-Hezbollah Alawite militia in Tripoli that left one dead Monday.
Rafehi implied that President Michel Suleiman and Lebanon’s acting defense minister, Fayez Ghosn – both Christians – were aware of Hezbollah’s involvement in clashes in Sidon with the followers of radical cleric Sheikh Ahmad al Assir. Those battles left scores of Assir partisans dead, and at least 18 Lebanese soldiers.
Sunnis have been outraged at Hezbollah’s involvement in Sidon, which was confirmed by multiple witnesses and media outlets, despite repeated denials by Lebanese officials. They’ve also been angered by reports that Sunnis the army captured were tortured and, in at least one instance, killed while in interrogation.
“Some members of the military are receiving orders from Iran and killing our sons,” Rafehi said.
Video footage the Lebanese media aired last week appeared to show Hezbollah members assisting the army, and soldiers mistreating captured detainees during the Sidon fighting. International human rights groups have joined Sunni religious leaders in calling for an official investigation into the incidents, and the army has said it detained soldiers suspected of torture, even as it denies Hezbollah’s involvement and threatened to sue media outlets for reporting it.
Because Lebanon’s Christian community controls the presidency and upper echelons of the army, Rafehi claimed that the sectarian tension between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiite Muslims over the civil war in Syria soon might engulf the Christians as well. In general, Lebanon’s Sunnis have sided with the rebels who are battling to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the country’s Shiites favor the Syrian regime.
“If our Christian partners are turning a blind eye to what’s happening to Sunnis, then their turn will come,” Rafehi said.
The growing perception among Sunnis that the Lebanese army is biased in favor of Hezbollah and its Syrian allies has left many Sunni-majority areas distrustful of one of Lebanon’s last remaining institutions considered above the poisonous sectarian fray that divides this tiny nation. While the enlisted members of the military often hail from Lebanon’s poor, rural Sunni areas, much of the top leadership positions remain in Christian hands.
The army has made its own accusations, accusing one of Assir’s followers Tuesday of smuggling weapons into the mosque complex that the army and Hezbollah besieged last week. Ghali Haddara, who was seen in a grisly video alongside retired pop star Fadl Shaker as the men bragged of killing soldiers, apparently has said he’d smuggled weapons into Sidon for the group. He also allegedly orchestrated a bombing campaign against targets throughout Lebanon, according to a military intelligence official.
“Haddara appears to have been the guy who helped get them the weapons,” said the official, who under army regulations cannot be named. “They were planning bombings as well, but we’re still questioning people about those details.”
The official also said the army was conducting DNA tests on two unidentified bodies found in the Sidon complex. Shaker and Assir haven’t been seen or heard from since the siege, and there are suspicions that they died in it.
“We have taken samples from both families for comparison, but the bodies were too burned to identify,” the official said.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero