In Lebanon, the return of the militias

During the 15 year Lebanese civil war, rival militias representing Sunni, Shiite, Druze, and Christians fought for control of the city of Beirut. It was a bloody, destructive civil war and it only ended when there was virtually nothing left to fight over, and Syria was able to occupy most of the country and keep the warring factions apart.

The Taif Accords ordered the disbanding of militias and the Syrian army to exit the country. Neither article was honored with Hezb'allah morphing into a political force as well as a terrorist militia and the Syrians staying put for another decade.

But other militias stashed their weapons and trained on the sly. Now it appears that with the Syrian civil war dividing this little country even more than it already is, the militas are starting to make their presence known again and, with no government to speak of, may end up igniting a second civil war.


Residents fear that Syria-related clashes could drag their country back into sectarian civil war. Lebanon is still struggling to heal the wounds of 15 years of war between 1975 and 1990 and remains home to armed sectarian militia.

The army said 12 soldiers were killed in Sidon where troops stormed the mosque complex of hardline Sunni cleric Ahmed al-Assir. A medic told Reuters that 22 bodies had been pulled from the mosque complex.

Late on Monday, clouds of smoke rose from the mosque. Assir's office across the road was completely destroyed. At least four tanks and several army vehicles at the scene had been torched. Assir remained at large.

The government declared Tuesday a day of mourning for the dead soldiers and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and premier-designate Tammam Salam issued a statement late on Monday rejecting "any attack on the army".

Sidon had been on edge since violence erupted last week between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim fighters, at odds over the Syrian conflict which pits mainly Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, who is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah has sent fighters into Syria to help Assad's forces recapture a strategic town, enraging Sunni groups.

Fighting started after gunmen loyal to Assir opened fire on an army checkpoint on Sunday, the army said. Assir's supporters accuse the army of backing Hezbollah.

The government called for the need to secure Sidon and "prevent all armed manifestations in a comprehensive manner."

Violence spread on Monday to Tripoli, where gunmen opened fire on the military and blocked roads with cement blocks and burning tires. Clashes there have wounded two soldiers and three gunmen.

In the capital Beirut, militia loyal to both sides blocked roads. Local media reported that some hardline Sunni mosques in Tripoli and Beirut called for jihad, or holy war, in support of Assir. Jihadi feeds on Twitter were also full of calls for Sunnis to fight in support of him.

If there is another outbreak of sectarian violence, it is likely to be even more confused than the previous conflict. Hezb'allah has nominal control of the country - they've got the guns and trained fighters but a bare majority in parliament which makes forming a government exceedingly difficult. The opposition - largely Sunni with some Christians - isn't strong enough to battle Hezb'allah in the streets but has put a roadblock up to prevent a total Hez takeover.

The army is run by a general who has expressed sympathy for Syria, which makes the Sunnis very distrustful. The emergence in Beirut of militias blocking roads is very troubling, reminiscent of the checkpoints established by rival factions that made getting around Beirut virtually impossible.

All in all, Lebanon appears headed for big trouble unless cooler heads on all sides prevail. The ominious evidence points to no one listening to anyone with a "cooler head."

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