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Sectarian clash ignites Beirut riots

Fighting at a university spills into nearby areas. The army sets a curfew and community leaders appeal for calm.

January 26, 2007|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims churned in the Lebanese capital Thursday as armed clashes at a university killed at least two people and overflowed into surrounding neighborhoods.

Hours after dark, the army imposed an overnight curfew in an effort to restore order. Community leaders took to the airwaves to soothe their followers' inflamed emotions.

Rampaging youths smashed cars, lighted fires and attacked the party headquarters of their political rivals for hours after the gunfire and rioting earlier in the day at Beirut Arab University.

The flare-up of fighting and the seizure of streets by clubtoting young men illustrated the danger of Lebanon's deepening political crisis: Rhetorical brinkmanship and street demonstrations have unleashed a torrent of rage and a sense of threat that are not easily assuaged.

There was no consistent account of what sparked the fight at the private university in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of south Beirut. Rumors were passed from one angry youth to the next, whipping up rage: Shiites had been spitting on the shoes of the Sunnis; Sunnis had been beating Shiite women.

As the fighting burst into a riot, students phoned friends to come join in. Nearby streets have seen sectarian clashes in recent weeks, and as Shiites neared the university, brawls erupted between neighborhood men and the volunteer fighters.

"They came onto our street insulting us, provoking us, smashing cars," said Mohammed Ali, a 32-year-old Sunni shopkeeper. "When you see that, you have to defend yourselves."

Shortly after the riot died down, Ali and other men in the neighborhood were patrolling the streets, clubs and pipes in their hands.

"Hezbollah has guns. They try to tell us you should stay home, do nothing," he said. "But we are ready to die here. Our dignity is here."

The army struggled to separate the two sides. The sound of machine-gun fire rattled through the surrounding streets, but it wasn't clear who was shooting. Many witnesses said a sniper had been shooting people.

An official with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah said two people were killed. Other reports placed the death toll as high as four. At least 150 people were wounded in the fighting.

Word of the clashes raced around the city. Smoke climbed into the sky at sunset as demonstrators burned tires and cars along the roads. The streets were jammed tight with traffic, then stood eerily empty after people reached their homes and locked the doors.

After sunset, mobs of young men burned cars and set up impromptu checkpoints on the highway linking the airport to downtown. At one such checkpoint near downtown, soldiers watched as demonstrators hauled heaps of sand and garbage bins into the roadway and set fire to a parked car. After watching for a while, the soldiers climbed into massive trucks and sped away.

Among the protesters was Jad Haddad, a 21-year-old economics student at Beirut Arab University. Haddad, a backer of the Hezbollah-led opposition, still wore the hard hat he'd donned for protection from rocks during the fight on campus. He and other students had been driven away from the university by the army and security forces; he'd settled for harassing cars on Beirut's main artery.

"The roads are totally blocked," Haddad said. "Only our people can pass."

And if government supporters try to use the road?

Haddad grinned and held a wooden club aloft. A short time later, reports spread of cars being attacked on the road.

Tuesday, Hezbollah and its allies called a general strike and set up a vast network of roadblocks, paralyzing the country in an effort to topple the U.S.-backed government.

The crippling demonstration set off violent clashes between Sunnis, many of whom back the government, and Shiites. Christians also are split by the political divide.

As fears of civil war rose, alarmed opposition leaders called off the strike, fearful that the bloodshed would spin out of control.

Hezbollah and its allies have been pushing for months for a greater share of power. But the government, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, has ignored even massive protests. Rather than seeing a popular outpouring of dissatisfaction, the government has consistently framed the demonstrations as a coup attempt engineered by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's backers.

The leaders from both sides appeared to be struggling to control their followers Thursday.

Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah issued a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering his people to stay out of the streets. "It's a religious duty," he said.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally and head of the Shiite Amal party, called for calm. "It's a pity to waste Lebanon like this," he said.

Saad Hariri, the patriarch of the Sunni community, also appeared on television to appeal for calm. The army would secure the streets and protect property, he said, and his followers should not respond to any provocation.

"Protect beloved Beirut," Hariri said.

Siniora was in Paris on Thursday, meeting with international donors in the hope of collecting enough cash to help Lebanon recover from last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah. The donors pledged more than $7 billion to help Lebanon. The United States, which refused to call for a cease-fire when Israel was bombing Lebanon last summer, promised to give $770 million.

"The cost of failure is too great to contemplate," Siniora told the donors.

But back in Beirut, animosity only seemed to deepen and more violence seemed imminent. In a shopping mall in an upscale, predominantly Christian neighborhood, shopkeepers gathered anxiously around televisions to watch the riots broadcast live as customers scurried homeward. A middle-aged man turned to a nearby foreigner in disgust.

"This is a great democracy," he said. "You can burn anybody's car you want."

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