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Lebanon's Militant Sunni Sheiks Support Uprising


Lebanese army soldiers sit on top of a military truck as reinforcements arrive to the outskirts of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Aug. 4, 2014.

Lebanese army soldiers sit on top of a military truck as reinforcements arrive to the outskirts of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Aug. 4, 2014.

Clashes are becoming more frequent between the Lebanese army and Syrian insurgents - including jihadists - along the Lebanon-Syria border.

This past weekend, Syrian rebels attacked the border town of Arsal, killing 11 Lebanese soldiers the fighting. Forty rebels also were killed.

Despite the risk that the fighting will drag Lebanon fully into the mayhem of Syria's sectarian civil war, the country's militant Sunni sheikhs said they sympathize with jihadists in Iraq and Syria, including those fighting with al-Qaida-affilated groups.

Sheikh Mohammed Gamil Nizah is a leading Sunni cleric in Lebanon's northern town of Tripoli, where local Sunnis have clashed frequently with the army and Shi'ite Muslims.

Arsal, Lebanon

Arsal, Lebanon

He said because of repression by the Shi'ite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the tyranny of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the Sunnis in those countries decided to rise up.

He warned the same will happen soon in Lebanon.

Fears arrest

The sheikh, a 46-year-old father of six, said he is nervous he is going to be arrested by Lebanese authorities for his outspokenness.

During the interview with VOA, his supporters glanced at a bank of closed-circuit television screens broadcasting images from outside his mosque, alert for a security raid.

Last month, another prominent Salafist cleric was arrested in Tripoli.

Lebanese security officials claim there are growing links between Sunni agitators and foreign jihadists, who have been behind more than a dozen suicide bombs on Shi'ite strongholds in Lebanon in the past year.

Asked whether he supports jihadist groups such as al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra or the breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, which has been leading the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the sheikh chooses his words carefully.

He said he disagrees with some of the extreme behavior of the jihadists but that Sunnis in Tripoli support the Islamic revolutions in Syria and Iraq, arguing they have managed to break the Shi'ite crescent across the Mideast.

Battling rebels

Lebanese security forces are working to contain violent sectarianism in Lebanon. And for weeks have been combating an estimated 3,000 Syrian rebels holed up along remote parts of the border near the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal.

After the fierce weekend fighting in which 15 Lebanese soldiers were taken hostage, security officials said they are determined to win the battle in the next 48 hours. However, they insist they are not working in cooperation with Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia movement whose fighters are battling Syrian rebels on the other side of the border.

On Tripoli's main shopping streets there is skepticism that the army and Hezbollah are not working together. Locals blame the domineering behavior of Hezbollah for much of the growing anger of Sunnis.

Azzam, a storeowner, said people are angry that the army arrests Sunni militants but does nothing against Hezbollah. There is no balance and Sunnis are being discriminated against, he said.

The army said it won't be deterred by threats of revolution.

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