BEIRUT — Lebanese security forces on Tuesday took control of the restive northern city of Tripoli, driving out sectarian militias sympathetic to both sides of the civil war in Syria that had brought the city to the brink of chaos.
The Lebanese military deployed troops throughout embattled neighborhoods and arrested lower-ranking militia members. But it moved slowly enough that the top militia leaders were able to escape _ drawing high-profile mockery.
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, has seen periodic flareups of sectarian violence since the 1980s. But the civil war in nearby Syria has exacerbated those divisions, with weeks of sniper and rocket exchanges taking place between rival communities of Sunni Muslims, who generally support the rebellion in Syria, and Shiite Alawites, who generally back the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In the past 10 days, gunmen have killed two soldiers and a policemen.
The army’s intervention was announced a full day in advance, drawing criticism from Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and a longtime militia leader in his own right. Jumblatt noted that the same politicians who approved the operation had ample time to warn their allies in Tripoli to vacate the area before arrests.
“The funniest thing about the security plan, which we cannot but support and wish success for, is the fact that it warned in advance all fighting frontiers’ leaders,” he told a local television station. In a phone interview with McClatchy, Jumblatt refused to be specific on which leaders warned which militias, but he spoke in general terms.
“We know that the fighters in Tripoli all report to politicians from Tripoli,” he said. He made specific reference to Rifaat Eid, the leader of the Lebanese Arab Democratic Party, who’s been accused of links to the car bombings of two Sunni mosques last summer.
“Rifaat Eid only has to pick up the phone and can be in Syria in one hour,” Jumblatt said. “Maybe he had to complete his university experience, maybe he will pursue a degree in California.”
When asked if prominent Lebanese politicians control Sunni militias in Tripoli _ as is widely believed in Lebanon _ Jumblatt scoffed at the notion they were independent.
“Where does the poorest community in Lebanon get weapons?” he asked. “Where do they get bullets? Why do they stop the minute Sunni leaders agree to a halt in the fighting? Does al Qaida stop fighting in Syria when a politician asks them nicely?”
The army announced the arrests of at least 14 leaders of “armed groups.” It said it had raided Eid’s Arab Democratic Party offices in the Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsin and issued an arrest warrant for his father, Ali Eid. It failed, however, to arrest an infamous Sunni ideologue, Omar Bakri, a preacher with links to al Qaida who was expelled from Great Britain in 2005.
Bakri told McClatchy last week in an interview that the Syrian civil war had put Tripoli beyond the control of the Lebanese authorities.
“One year ago even we could not organize like we are today,” he said. “Because the Lebanese army is seen as an extension of the Syrian army, this community rejects its authority. Salafi jihadists are emerging as the source of power here and the army knows that it has to deal with us.”
Another Sunni militia leader, Abu Khaled, who commands about 100 men outside Tripoli’s fruit and vegetable markets – a scene of constant fighting – denied being part of a militia but described himself as a small business owner who’d donated guns and ammunition to protect his community from pro-Assad militias.
“They have the Syrian army and Hezbollah to protect them,” he said, referring to Assad sympathizers, “and we have nothing but our own blood. We take orders from nobody but our community.”
Neither Bakri nor Abu Kahled could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero