With Sunni-Shiite tensions higher than ever because of war in neighboring Syria, it didn't take much to spark deadly fighting in the Lebanese city of Sidon. Hezbollah quickly jumped in.
A two-day battle between Lebanese troops and followers of a radical Sunni cleric, one of the most severe in Lebanon since Syria's uprising began, has starkly illustrated its perilous instability. It also brought powerful Hezbollah fighters into the fray, pitting the militant group founded to fight Israel against fellow Lebanese.
Although the Lebanese Army's special forces units spearheaded the assault on a mosque and compound belonging to Sheikh Ahmad Assir, a Salafist cleric who had holed up there with 200 to 300 of his followers, it became evident today that they received some assistance from Hezbollah's battle-hardened fighters.
"Today we are doing surgery," says Haj, a local commander of Hezbollah forces in an area on the eastern edge of Abra, the hilltop Sidon neighborhood where Sheikh Assir's mosque is located. "We are removing a cancerous gland in a quick clean operation to cure the city."
But for a man who spent much of his military career confronting Israeli occupation troops in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s, fighting fellow Lebanese Sunnis is a "bitter pill."
"We would rather do what we are doing today against the Israelis," he says. "When we fight the Israelis it is like we are taking sweet medicine."
Sidon's normally traffic-choked streets were deserted for a second day today as Lebanese special forces stormed Sheikh Assir's compound. The firebrand cleric's outspoken criticism of Hezbollah has won him notoriety and support among Lebanese Sunnis. Tensions between Shiites and Sunnis here have been rising for years, a reflection of regional intra-Muslim strains since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as well as political developments in Lebanon. But they have been significantly aggravated by the war in Syria in which a mainly Sunni opposition is battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite, an obscure offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Lebanese Sunnis support the Syrian opposition and and hundreds have joined rebel groups or provided logistical assistance from Lebanon. Hezbollah is a staunch ally of the Assad regime and has deployed several thousand fighters into Syria to help the Syrian army confront the armed opposition. (Nicholas Blanford has chronicled here Hezbollah's growing openness about its involvement in Syria.)
The fighting, the worst in Sidon since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, left dead at least 20 soldiers and an unknown number of Assir's followers. Dozens of Assir's gunmen were captured and some 25 were reported to have surrendered.
By evening, troops had seized the compound and were pursuing snipers and fleeing Sunni gunmen and inspecting the buildings for booby traps. Sheikh Assir, who had vowed to die in his compound as a martyr, apparently escaped through a tunnel. His whereabouts are unknown. However, Bassam al-Dada, a political advisor to the rebel Free Syrian Army, told Lebanon's Al Jadeed that Assir had escaped to Syria. The claim could not be immediately confirmed.
The clashes began yesterday when a dispute at a Lebanese Army checkpoint between soldiers and Sheikh Assir's supporters turned into a deadly gunbattle which quickly spread to other areas of the city. That night a delegation of Sunni clerics attempted to mediate, but neither side was prepared to yield.
"Assir wants to be a martyr," says Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a Sunni cleric in Sidon who is allied with Hezbollah. "The Army is not accepting any mediation. The Army wants to arrest or kill him."
Today Sidon's empty streets resounded with explosions and machine gun fire. Shops were closed and official school exams were postponed.
"Assir is an Israeli dog. He is destroying the country," says Khalil Kurdi, indicating his shuttered shop. "He gets lots of money from abroad and he dosn't care that we are suffering."
Bursts of machine gun fire from a nearby street sent a small crowd of youths dashing for the cover of a block of flats. On the eastern edge of Abra, a group of Hezbollah fighters sheltered by the wall of a house.
"Stay here. There is a sniper nearby," said one fighter wearing a black T-shirt covered in canvas ammunition pouches, green military trousers and a baseball cap. A yellow ribbon tied to his webbing marked him as a Hezbollah man. More Hezbollah fighters sprinted up the road as tinny voices squawked from the walkie talkies in their hands.
"Karbala, Abu Zeinab! Karbala, Abu Zeinab!" said one of the men summoning a comrade over the radio.
Initially wary of the presence of foreign reporters and after insisting that no pictures be taken, the Hezbollah men allowed the reporters to stay because it had become too dangerous to leave.
The crack of a nearby sniper round spurred the fighters to crouch and move closer to the wall. Moments later, Hezbollah fighters opened fire with machine guns, attempting to hit the unseen sniper. More incoming rounds whizzed overhead, followed by the resounding blast from a rocket-propelled grenade. Bullets smacked into the adjacent building. A squad of Lebanese soldiers 100 yards away fired a recoilless rifle round toward the cramped tower blocks in Abra.
"There's another sniper in a building behind us," said one of the fighters. A four-wheel drive vehicle, its engine racing, skidded around a corner and pulled up. Several fighters, dripping with sweat and panting with exertion, spilled out and were replaced by others before the car sped away. "They are going after the snipers," said one man.
Nearby, Haj, the local Hezbollah commander, a relaxed looking, middle-aged man who stood out from his uniform-clad comrades in jeans, loafers, and a striped shirt, marshalled dozens more fighters for combat. Three four-wheel drive vehicles pulled up as Hezbollah fighters filed out of a building, many of them wearing full military uniforms and helmets.
Those adopting a paramilitary look wore yellow ribbons to differentiate themselves from Assir's gunmen on the front line. Some of them carried sniper rifles in long green canvas holsters, others brandished new RPG launchers and light machine guns or carried wooden boxes of AK-47 ammunition. They climbed into the vehicles, the barrels of their rifles poking out of the windows.
A convoy of cars inched down the hill. The occupants, Sunni residents of the area fleeing the fighting, waved white handkerchiefs as they headed toward the Hezbollah fighters, clearly nervous at their possible reception.
Haj tutted and shook his head before stepping out into the street.
"Why are you raising white sheets?" he gently admonishes the driver of the lead car. "This is a sign of surrender to the Israelis. We are here to protect you. Put the white sheets away."
One fighter, in his late 30s and wearing a full camouflage uniform, sat in the shade smoking a cigarette, a brand new beige-colored American M4 carbine fitted with a 100 round drum magazine at his feet. He says he has just returned from fighting at Sheikh Assir's mosque, a few hundred yards up the road.
"There is a lot of damage to buildings and I think there are many civilians dead," he says. "Assir was using women as a shield toward the end."
Although the battles in Sidon appeared to be dying down tonight, tensions flared in Sunni areas across the country. Gunmen took to the streets in parts of Beirut and in Tripoli, Lebanon's second city in the north. Imams of at least two mosques in Tripoli reportedly called for "jihad" against the Lebanese army and Hezbollah. Main roads were blocked with burning tires in north Lebanon and briefly on the coastal highway between Beirut and Sidon.