Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 August 2008
Issue No. 911
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tripoli rumbles on

A bomb in Tripoli last week showed that security in Lebanon remains precarious despite a crop of political settlements, Lucy Fielder reports

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Lebanese soldiers carry the coffins of their comrades killed in a rush hour blast at a bus stop last week. The funeral took place at the Olympic Stadium in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli

Lebanon's Sunni Islamist militants were in the spotlight again this week after a bombing in Tripoli that killed at least 13 people and injured 50. Shia resistance and political group Hizbullah signed a memorandum with a Salafi alliance several days later, in what some saw as a reaction to growing tensions.

Set off during the early morning rush hour on a busy street in the centre of the troubled northern city of Tripoli, the bomb appeared to target the military with no attempt to spare civilians. A kilogramme and a half of TNT, hidden in a bag by the roadside, was detonated by remote control as a public bus carrying many soldiers drove past, security sources said. Nuts and bolts packed into the bomb were aimed at causing a higher number of casualties. The death toll ended up at 13, though first reports put it higher.

Although sources said this week it was too early to say who was behind the bombing, the finger pointed to Islamists. "This terrorist explosion directly targets the army and peaceful coexistence in the country," the army said in a statement.

If so, it was the worst attack on the army since last summer, when soldiers fought a 16-week battle with Al-Qaeda-inspired militant group Fatah Al-Islam, losing 170 soldiers. The gunmen, of Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab nationalities, were holed up in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, just north of Tripoli. Fatah Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-Abssi and other fighters slipped away during the battle and remain at large. The fighting levelled the camp, home to roughly 30,000 Palestinians.

Last Wednesday's bombing coincided with President Michel Suleiman's landmark visit to Syria, where he and counterpart Bashar Al-Assad announced the imminent exchange of embassies. Syria and Lebanon have not had conventional diplomatic relations since their independence in 1943, and the Lebanese have long accused their larger neighbour of refusing to recognise them as a sovereign nation. Other, thornier issues such as border demarcation and the fate of hundreds of missing Lebanese believed by their families to be in Syrian jails were deferred to the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Committee for resolution.

Suleiman's election in May, after a political deal in Doha that also granted the Hizbullah-led alliance, then in opposition, the veto-wielding third of cabinet seats they had long demanded, enabled the two countries to thaw the past few years' icy relations. The army chief-turned-president has good relations with Damascus from his military years, as did his pro-Syrian predecessor Emile Lahoud, but unlike Lahoud he was elected as a consensus president, giving him a strong mandate to right the relationship.

Concerning the Tripoli bombing, Ahmed Moussalli, an expert on Islamic militancy at the American University of Beirut, said: "I think this is part of the rise of the new Salafists in Lebanon and it was timed as President Suleiman visited Damascus because they are very against the Syrians." He added: "Fatah Al-Islam's main leaders disappeared from the battlefield. The military has been targeted because they see it as their main enemy." Suleiman was head of the army during the Nahr Al-Bared battle.

Tripoli and nearby rural areas, such as Akkar, are overwhelmingly Sunni and a breeding ground for Islamist movements -- peaceful as well as the militant fringe. They are troubled, marginalised areas, despite their size and sizeable populations. Fighting between Sunni Muslims and Alawites allied with Syria killed 23 people over June and July in desperately poor areas near central Tripoli.

The Salafist movement was galvanised, along with the Sunni community at large, by the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. Many in Lebanon and the West accused Syria of killing the country's most powerful Sunni strongman. For many northern Salafis, that fed the rancour that began with the arrests of many Islamists during the years of Syria's military and political dominance of Lebanon, which ended in 2005 after Al-Hariri's death.

"We are seeing an attempt by the new Salafists to break down the new relations between Lebanon and Syria in the interests of Saudi Arabia and its supporters," Moussalli said. "The situation has been unleashed and cannot be contained by the Future Movement," Moussalli said, referring to Saad Al-Hariri's political party.

Saudi Arabia is a staunch supporter of the Future Movement, but many northern Islamist groups say they have also received funding from Riyadh. Riyadh fell out with Syria over the July 2006 war, when it dismissed Hizbullah's capturing of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid -- which prompted a devastating Israeli response -- as an "adventure". Al-Assad later called Arab leaders who did not support the resistance "half-men", prompting a crisis with the Saudis and Egyptians.

Moussalli said many Salafis had grown disenchanted with the Future Movement because of its "inability to stand up to major players in Lebanon", namely Hizbullah, which along with its allies overran Future Movement centres in western Beirut during its brief military takeover in May. That may have widened a rift within the Salafi Islamist between those who wanted to ally with the Future Movement and a smaller group that rejected Saad Al-Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora's close ties with the United States and their pro-Western stance.

Hizbullah's memorandum with the Salafi Belief and Justice Movement, an alliance of about 15 organisations, threw the split in the Salafi movement into sharp relief. Radwan Al-Sayed, Islamic philosophy professor at the Lebanese University, said Hizbullah had signed with a small faction that did not represent mainstream Sunnis. "The text is not bad, it speaks about forbidding bloodshed and not scorning the different schools of thought in Islam. But it is politicised, because it was signed with a small group that it did not have a problem with in the first place."

Hizbullah's problem is with the other Salafis and the Sunnis of Beirut and the middle Bekaa, which it "attacked", said Al-Sayed who is close to the Future Movement. "They have a problem with us, and they did not approach us to make peace," he said, ruling out the likelihood of other Sunni movements signing the memorandum.

El-Sayed said it was too early to attribute blame for the Tripoli bombing. But he said that since Syria seemed an unlikely culprit, with Suleiman's lauded visit on the same day, Israeli involvement was possible.

Moussalli said the memorandum was significant on the religious and ideological levels as well as the political, since Salafists see the Shia as non-believers. The alliance that signed the agreement was backed by Qatar -- a country that officially adheres to the strict Wahhabi brand of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia, he said.

"This is partly an attempt to weaken Future and Saudi Arabia on the part of Qatar," Moussalli said. "We may soon see a showdown between the Salafis themselves in the north."

In the memorandum, signed in Beirut 18 August, the two sides condemned any attack by one Muslim group against another and pledged to "stand in the face of the American-Zionist project". "We will exert all possible efforts to eliminate the takfir [fundamentalist] ideology of the Sunnis and Shias, since accusing all Shias of being infidels is rejected by the Salafis and accusing all Sunnis of being infidels is rejected by Hizbullah," the memo read.

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