Gunmen face off in Tripoli as sectarian battle escalates

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Fierce fighting between Alawites and Sunnis has turned Tripoli, Lebanon, into a battleground – and brought the Syrian war home

Mazen Zred was one of the 30 lucky ones yesterday morning.

He doesn’t feel it, strapped up in his bed at the Nini Hospital, swathed in bandages, two bottles of painkillers pumping into him. He was driving his motorcycle on Thursday night from Badawi past the end of Syria Street – an aptly named thoroughfare that divides Tripoli’s two warring neighbourhoods of Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen – whence came a single sniper’s round.

“It hit me in the buttock and the side but I kept driving to safety, 200 metres and the pain was terrible, but I made it to a shop doorway where I collapsed.” 

The bullet came from Jabal Mohsen, the Alawite ghetto of Tripoli. Zred is 27, a Sunni Muslim and a caretaker working at the very same hospital in which he lay yesterday, talking slowly and painfully of how the war in Syria had caught up with him in Lebanon.  But he is alive.

A few minutes later, we drove across the end of Syria Street, the matchstick crackle of gunfire forcing the drivers to bump into the reservation, drive on the wrong side of the boulevard at nothing less than 80 miles an hour, headlights flashing.  A walk and a sprint through garbage-filled streets where children are still playing beside walls of bullet-punctured plaster, then up three pitch-black stone floors of a shabby apartment block and into a little room with cheap sofas and water running down the wallpaper where little Jana Khaled sits with a vivid red scar down her neck.  Another of the lucky ones. 

On Thursday afternoon, she had gone downstairs to turn on the generator.  There is no electricity in much of Tripoli and Jana had just put out her hand to the switch and – through the narrow gap which I myself saw yesterday and from which you can just see the distant houses of Jabal Mohsen – there came a single bullet that ripped down Jana’s neck and grazed the top of her throat.  Yes it hurt, she said.  No, she would not be telling her friends at school.  The militiamen in the room didn’t laugh.  Jana, all of eight years old in a white cardigan dress with a pink bow in her hair, stretched  her neck back to show her wound.

Five dead and 30 wounded on Thursday night and on Friday morning, a total of 23 dead – the truly unlucky ones in six days of fighting between the Alawites (the Shia sect to which Bashar al-Assad belongs) and the Sunni gunmen of Bab el-Tebbaneh. 

The battle started on Sunday, about the time Assad’s soldiers and Hezbollah gunmen began to pour into the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr – less than 50 miles away from the northern Lebanese city as the MiG flies – to clear out the Sunni rebels trying (ever more vainly if regime forces continue their little victories) to overthrow Assad.

Tripoli looks like a sectarian battle.  Sunnis versus the Alawites, whose loyalty to Assad and his Shia Lebanese Hezbollah allies has turned the city into a Sunni-Shia conflict.  Yet Lebanon hides dangerous little complexities within its daily shedding of blood. 

The Lebanese army has been shooting at snipers (of both Alawite and Sunni varieties) but three of its own troops have been killed over the past 36 hours.  One of them was a Sunni soldier shot dead by the family of a Sunni man in Bab el-Tebbaneh who had himself been shot dead by the army.  A Sunni kills a Sunni.  Fathom that equation.

The muezzin of a local mosque was killed on Thursday, a three-year old girl sniped to death hours later. Dr Mustafa Aloush, as prominent a politician as he is a doctor at the same Nini Hospital where Zred works, puts his hands in front of his face.  “We’ve had clashes here many times, but not like this,” he says in considerable anger.  “Where is the army?  Who is starting this each day?  There is no political way out.” 

There are maybe 25 militias in Bab el-Tebbaneh, some with scarcely 10 members, others with two or three hundred gunmen.  One is run by Saad al-Musri, the brother of a man murdered in Tripoli two years ago, more padrone than politician. Then there’s Hassan Sabagh, Salafist, radical – against the fighting, though his rogues keep turning up for the battles – and there are numberless local youths who pick up their guns when the shooting starts.  Fewer up the hill in Jabal Mohsen, of course; the Alawites have always been a minority.

That’s where the sectarian bit comes into play.  There are new outfits abroad.  One is called the “Sunni Lions”, who are busy ordering Sunni “jihadists” “not to let an Alawite set foot on the soil of Tripoli,” and threatening Sunni Muslims who employ Alawites.  The “Eagles of the People of Tripoli” has announced “special operations” against Rifaat Ali Eid, the leader of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, who has demanded a ceasefire.  Both sides, of course, are still fighting.

Some say Tripoli Sunnis went to fight in Qusayr, that many were killed and the Tripoli fighting is their revenge on the Alawites;  others, that the Lebanese army are being attacked for allowing the Lebanese Hezbollah to cross the border and fight for Assad. 

In the room with Jana is a lean 40-year old in fatigues and an AK-47 rifle.  After a night of battle, Khaled Chakhchir admits he is by trade a taxi driver.  “Right now,” he says wearily, “Assad wants the media to come here to Tripoli and say we are all al-Qa’ida and that his people are right to fight us.”  Bin Laden’s ghost, it seems, is never far away.

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