Cloud of Syria's war hangs over Lebanese cleric's death

The fatal shooting of Sheikh Abdul-Wahid by a soldier raised fears about the influence of the Assad regime over the border, reports Robert Fisk

There was gunfire at Sheikh Ahmed Abdul-Wahid's funeral in northern Lebanon yesterday, a promise from the Lebanese army that they will investigate his killing – by a soldier – on Sunday, and a heap of appeals for calm from both the military and the government.

But, and here's the worrying factor, not a single Lebanese flag was held aloft at the Sunni Muslim Sheikh's graveside. Banners of the largely Sunni March 14th movement that opposes Syria, there were aplenty. And many flags of the old Syrian nation – green-white-and-black – the symbol that now identifies all opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. But Lebanon had somehow got lost.

Only hours after gun battles in Beirut – between Sunni Muslims who support Bashar and those who would like to see him dead – the angry, rifle-shooting cortege followed Abdul-Wahid's coffin, his sheikh's red and black turban attached to the lid upon a green and gold cloth, to the cemetery in his little village of Bireh. No one – not even the Lebanese army, which was hitherto the one reliable, non-sectarian institution in the state – can explain why a soldier would want to shoot the sheikh as he travelled with his bodyguard on the road to Halba in the far north of Lebanon. Military sources said that a soldier had also been wounded in the shooting. So did the sheikh's bodyguard fire first?

And what – an awful question, but one which was obviously being asked in Beirut yesterday – was the religious affiliation of the soldiers who apparently stopped, or tried to stop, the sheikh's car at a roadblock north of Tripoli? Yes, a committee would be set up to investigate. And yes, there would be a police inquiry. And a military inquiry, to boot.

But no one could stop the inevitable questions. Was Syria's war at last sliding over the border into Lebanon? Did Bashar, fighting against the odds in Damascus, want to relight the ashes that have smouldered away beneath Lebanon since the Syrians left the country in 2005? Was this – capital letters here for every Lebanese newspaper headline – A RETURN TO THE CIVIL WAR?

Probably not. If eight civilians were killed in Tripoli last week in battles between Sunnis and pro-Syrian members of the Shia Alawi sect, many more have died in gun battles over the past 12 months in the neglected, poor streets of one of Lebanon's most beautiful cities.

Four years ago, at least 80 were killed in battles between the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and Sunni gunmen loyal to March 14th. Two years earlier, 1,300 Lebanese were killed in Israeli attacks following the capture of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. There were Israeli invasions in 1996 and 1993. And if the 15-year civil war did end in 1990, there had been an earlier civil war between government and Druze militias in 1958. Lebanon is always enduring the greatest crisis since the last greatest crisis.

But the shooting in Beirut should not be diminished. Gunmen back on the streets of the capital produces a mixture of intense fear and weariness among the Lebanese. The fighting centred around the Berjawi family – Sheikh Shaker Berjawi, who was once pro-Palestinian and then pro-Mourabitoun, a particularly venal militia, and is now pro-Syrian, versus other members of his anti-Syrian extended family who support the Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But it spread from Tarek el-Jdeideh into the shopping district of Verdun and then moved towards the museum, the old civil war crossing point in Beirut.

The problem is that Syria now dominates Lebanon as surely as it did in the days when tens of thousands of its troops occupied much of the country. You only have to count how many times the phrases "pro-Syrian" and "anti-Syrian" appear in reports about Lebanon to grasp that the division between the government – electorally pro-Syrian and very much supported by Hezbollah and pro-Syrian Christian parties and the Shia Muslims – and the anti-Syrian Sunnis and Druze and Phalangist Christians is presently incurable.

But every time the Lebanese have been offered another civil war, they have turned it down. The young men and women educated outside Lebanon during the 1975-90 war do not want another conflict and are contemptuous of the sectarian politics, introduced by the French almost 100 years ago. And no one can forget who won the civil war: the one neighbouring power whose soldiers were stabled across the land, that rock-solid, secure dictatorship which would never suffer internal dissent, a nation called Syria.

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