TRIPOLI, Lebanon—After a war that left them marginalized and bitter, moderate Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are struggling to prevent al-Qaida-inspired extremists from winning new supporters here.
As criticism continues over the weak performance of Lebanon's Sunni-led government during this summer's 34-day conflict between Israel and the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, radical Sunnis are finding new support for their cause among a fragmented sect that composes an estimated quarter of Lebanon's population. Their efforts are aided by frustration among Sunnis at the rising prominence of Hezbollah.
"Ever since the show of Hezbollah's strength, the Sunni population wants the presence of a Sunni political authority so that they won't end up second- or third-class citizens," said Fathi Yakan, a Lebanese who's been active in forming militant Islamic groups here.
In the Arab world, Lebanon has been among the countries least affected by the rise of the Islamist movement, particularly when compared with Egypt, Syria and Jordan, where Islamist factions have strong followings. Al-Qaida appeared to be interested in Lebanon primarily as a banking center and as a place to recruit men to send to Iraq to fight U.S. forces, according to Lebanese who monitor the presence of extremist groups.
"Lebanon has always functioned as a superhighway for al-Qaida, for recruitment and funding. For them to establish a base here and get into an inevitable conflict with the government would hinder that," said Hazem el Amin, a Beirut-based investigative reporter who covers militant Islam for the Saudi-owned newspaper al Hayat.
But when the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict brought an enemy to their doorstep, Sunni extremists were angry to find themselves sidelined from battle. They watched resentfully as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah became one of the most popular figures in the Arab world.
Their leadership, which already had split over whether to support Syria or condemn it for its alleged role in assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, appeared weak and irrelevant. Its call for a cease-fire fell on deaf ears in Washington and elsewhere, and its initial criticism of Hezbollah dropped off as the death toll grew from Israeli bombing.
Radical leaders have sought to fill the void.
Even before the war, militancy was on the rise in each of Lebanon's three urban centers with large Sunni concentrations: Tripoli and its surroundings in the north, Beirut in the center and the port city of Sidon in the south.
Some evidence of the change appeared superficial: longer beards for men, stricter veils for women and the growth of membership in hard-line religious groups.
But there were more serious signs of radical influence. Last year, French authorities disrupted an extremist cell that included suspects who told police they'd received explosives training at a camp near Tripoli. Within weeks of that news, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a rocket barrage that hit northern Israel from launching points in Lebanon.
In January, Lebanese prosecutors charged 13 suspected al-Qaida members with planning terrorist attacks in Iraq and possibly Lebanon. In April, police in Beirut arrested Assem Hammoud, a Lebanese suspected in a plot to bomb commuter train tunnels under New York's Hudson River.
In August, German authorities named two men from Tripoli as the prime suspects in a plot to bomb two trains in Germany. One was arrested in northern Germany; the other turned himself in to authorities in Lebanon.
Extremists also have found recruits and safe havens in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, which possess arms caches and training programs, according to Lebanese politicians and clerics. The extremists have gained such large followings that they've received seats on the camps' governing committees, moderate camp leaders said. Recent shootouts are symptomatic of a power struggle in the camps, the leaders said.
Militant groups have seized on the Sunni community's fear of Shiism, a reflection of the bitter history of the sects' rivalry, which dates to a seventh-century dispute over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Some radical Sunnis don't even recognize Shiites as Muslims, and many are openly concerned that Shiite Iran is using groups such as Hezbollah to win control of the Arab world.
Even Yakan—whose Tripoli-based group, the Islamic Front, stands out among hard-line Sunni factions by supporting Hezbollah—finds the prospect of Shiite domination unsettling.
"The Shiite project is a project that begins in Iran, goes through Iraq and ends in Lebanon," he said. "It's like a scary, political Bermuda triangle."
There's no precise way to measure how many recruits radical Sunni groups have won over. The groups operate clandestinely and rarely give interviews or public statements. Relatively moderate Islamist leaders declined to introduce a visiting reporter to members of extremist factions, saying it was too dangerous.
Political analysts said they'd detected signs that the moderate Sunni leadership was working to reach an accommodation with the radicals—something that might benefit both sides.
The Sunni leadership would benefit, the analysts said, by winning Islamists' agreement not to attack in Lebanon. It also might be able to depend on the Islamists as an effective armed counterbalance to Hezbollah.
The radicals, meanwhile, would be able to continue their clandestine organizing with little fear of government reprisal.
"The payback is that the state won't go to war against them, like in Egypt and Jordan," said el Amin, the al Hayat journalist. "The dozens of guys who went to Iraq came back and are safe in their homes now."
An al-Qaida presence also might weaken Hezbollah, he suggested. "If al-Qaida is going to do any operation here, it's going to be against the Shiites, not the peacekeepers," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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