TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — From radical preachers to irreverent taxi drivers, anger is spreading through Lebanon’s Sunni community toward the country’s military, adding a dangerous twist to Lebanon’s instability, already shaken by relentless bombings.
Many Sunnis accuse the military of siding with their rivals, the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, as sectarian tensions grow in Lebanon, stoked by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Since December, four attacks have killed five soldiers, with warnings of more to come.
The tensions add another trigger for potential conflict within Lebanon. The sectarian divide is growing increasingly explosive, with Sunnis largely backing their brethren in Syria, while Shiites and Hezbollah support the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. That violence has ricocheted into Lebanon, with Sunni militants carrying out more than a dozen bombings against Shiite areas since July, killing dozens and terrifying the country.
As Lebanon’s military moves against the militants, they risk fueling further anger among the wider Sunni community – not because there’s much sympathy for extremists, but from the perception the army is punishing Sunnis for backing rebels while allowing Hezbollah to help Assad.
“The army doesn’t act fairly. They crush Sunnis with their feet,” said grocer Umm Zaher, 56, in a Sunni neighborhood of the Lebanese capital Beirut. She and most Sunnis interviewed by The Associated Press declined to give their full names, fearing retaliation from the army or Hezbollah.
“The army is theirs,” said taxi driver Khaled, 32, referring to Hezbollah.
Blue flags fluttered from nearby street lights, the symbol of a Sunni-dominated political bloc once led by assassinated Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“It’s everywhere in Sunni areas that people feel this way,” said Sunni cleric Raed Hlayhel of Tripoli.
Criticizing the army was once rare. The institution is widely seen as a unifying force, drawing recruits across Lebanon’s patchwork of Christian and Muslim sects. On the street, people often address soldiers as “watan,” Arabic for “homeland.”
The army is an important economic vehicle for Sunni advancement, and they compose at least one-third of its forces, said Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Lebanon’s military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Nevertheless, that and the offer of $3 billion to the army from Saudi Arabia, an ally of Lebanese Sunnis, has not shaken the perception among Sunnis that the army is against them.
Lebanese army officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Sunnis long have resented Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanon’s politics and the untouchable, state-within-a-state status it enjoys. Its guerrilla force also is stronger than the military. Sunnis began souring toward the army in May 2008, when Hezbollah-loyal gunmen rampaged through Sunni areas of Beirut, after years of political disputes, and soldiers did nothing to stop them.
Sunnis now accuse Lebanon’s army of targeting their brethren funneling weapons, helping and harboring Syrian rebels, while ignoring Hezbollah’s actions. In June, clashes erupted between Lebanese soldiers and followers of fiery Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Asir, a prominent opponent of Hezbollah. Hezbollah supporters briefly joined the fighting alongside soldiers, reviving Sunni grievances.
The army is being pushed into an “awkward position,” said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “It is perceived to be confronting Sunni extremists, while at the same time, it seems to be collaborating with the Shiite Hezbollah group,” Kahwaji said.
Recent events underscore those tensions.
On Jan. 24, soldiers seized 24-year-old Sunni cleric Omar Atrash, suspecting he recruited suicide bombers, smuggled explosives and planned attacks. Fellow clerics claim he was tortured into making false confessions.
The day before Atrash was arrested, soldiers shot Ibrahim Abu Meilek, 22, who they suspected of harboring extremist Syrian rebels, local media reported. Outraged Sunnis asked why Abu Meilek was punished while Hezbollah fighters around move freely.
On Jan. 15, soldiers killed a man during a raid in the eastern town of Kamed al-Lawz, with local media claiming he harbored Lebanon’s most wanted militant. Sunni clerics said he supported anti-Assad Syrian rebels.
Thousands of men marched in his funeral, enraged by a video showing his blood pooling around a pair of abandoned shoes.
“When the law is only applied to one side, it creates grievances,” Sunni politician Mustafa Alloush said. “What the Sunni street feels is that there’s winking toward Hezbollah, and severity toward the other side.”
Reflecting that anger, a series of attacks have targeted Lebanese soldiers. In January, gunmen in Tripoli killed two soldiers by firing a rocket at their vehicle. In mid-December, a man hurled a grenade at an army checkpoint near the southern city of Sidon. Hours later, another attacker blew himself up with a hand grenade, killing a soldier.
On Saturday, a suicide attacker driving an SUV blew himself up at an army checkpoint in the northeastern town of Hermel, killing two soldiers.
Growing anger has been made more dangerous because of a years-long drift by the Sunni community away from its traditional moderate leaders, in some cases to fiery preachers.
In an online recording uploaded in January, a shadowy Tripoli militant called on Sunnis to desert the army.
“Don’t be a sword that Christians and Shiites carry to stab you,” said the militant, who called himself Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari.
Retired army general Amin Hoteit dismissed accusations of discrimination.
“When Hezbollah fighters go to Syria, they cross checkpoints as civilians. They aren’t taking their weapons to Syria. They have no reason to be halted,” he said.
Sunnis, on the other hand, try to move around Lebanon with their weapons. “So if they aren’t stopped, it would be a problem,” he said.
The army tiptoes around Hezbollah in part because forcing Shiite soldiers to battle the group could splinter the military. The army cleaved between Muslims and Christians during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Hezbollah officials also have worked closely with Lebanon’s military intelligence, Nerguizian said.
Some wonder how long the uneasy peace will last.
In Beirut, taxi driver Khaled sat with his friend Mohammed, 42, joking about nightclubs and cursing Shiites.
Both were army conscripts; despite their growing frustration, they supported the military – with a caveat.
“Nobody has the intention to harm the army,” Mohammed said. “As long as they don’t attack us.”