Leaders scramble to avert strife

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Protesters briefly block the road in Corniche al-Mazraa by setting garbage containers on fire.

BEIRUT: Political and religious leaders scrambled Monday to prevent Lebanon’s slide into strife, a day after attacks on four Muslim scholars sent long-simmering sectarian tensions soaring at an alarming rate, threatening to plunge the divided country into total chaos.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani warned that the attacks on the four Sunni sheikhs, scholars at Dar al-Fatwa – Lebanon’s highest Sunni religious authority – could trigger a sectarian conflict, while Interior Minister Marwan Charbel acknowledged that the country stood Sunday on the brink of strife.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri warned against attempts to ignite sectarian strife in Lebanon, saying that embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad would not hesitate to “use the blood of Lebanese” to save his regime from collapse.

Both Qabbani and Charbel blamed political and religious leaders for sectarian incitement in their speeches in a country sharply divided over the 2-year-old bloody conflict in Syria and is reeling under the negative repercussions of that conflict.

“We chopped off the head, rather than the tail, of the snake. We thank the security agencies and the Lebanese Army for carrying out their duties and also the speeches used by the mufti of the republic and noble sheikhs of all sects that helped prevent strife,” Charbel told reporters after attending a meeting at Dar al-Fatwa that brought him together with Qabbani, Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn and Prosecutor General Hatem Madi to discuss ways to defuse sectarian tensions. “To all I say, this is how strife begins. This is how it begins when some shave the beards of Sunni scholars and beat up and insult another,” Qabbani said at the Makassed Hospital after visiting Sheikh Mazen Hariri and Sheikh Ahmad Fekhran, who were attacked and beaten up by a group of Shiite men in Beirut’s Khandaq al-Ghamiq neighborhood Sunday evening shortly after leaving the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in the downtown area.

Protesters, still outraged over the incident, briefly blocked the roads Monday in Qasqas and Corniche al-Mazraa and the coastal highway south of Beirut with burning tires.

Qabbani blamed various Lebanese leaders – Shiites and Sunnis – for the assault on the Sunni scholars and linked the beatings to the turmoil in Syria.

“Shiite political and military leaders and Sunni leaders, too, and all other Lebanese leaders are responsible for what has happened,” the mufti said in a fiery speech at the Makassed Hospital.

Lebanon is being targeted with the purpose of dragging it into the conflagration that hit the region,” Qabbani said. “There is a big conspiracy against us and we must nip this strife in the bud ... What happened today was the result of a political war and tense rhetoric.”

Charbel said Hezbollah and Amal helped the Lebanese Army in arresting 10 people suspected of their involvement in the attacks on the Sunni sheikhs.

For his part, Ghosn said that the country had overcome a calamity that could have led it into “obnoxious strife we have long warned against.”

“The Army will not hesitate to do anything to protect Lebanon and its security and stability. It will strike with an iron fist against anyone who seeks to incite strife in the country,” Ghosn said in a statement.

Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem telephoned Qabbani to relay the party’s condemnation of the attack. Qassem said the attack was “part of strife [some] seek among Muslims and among Lebanese” and rejected any protection for the perpetrators.

The assault on the Sunni sheikhs drew nationwide condemnation.

President Michel Sleiman condemned the “flagrant” attack on the sheikhs and called for justice to take its course. Sleiman, who is currently on a West Africa tour, telephoned Qabbani as well as the defense and interior ministers, urging them to “impose strict punishments on the perpetrators.”

Prime Minister Najib Mikati said political rhetoric was to blame for sectarian tension and called on all parties in Lebanon to stop firing up [their partisans] and stop the tense rhetoric instead of trying to evade collective responsibility.

Hariri also warned against strife saying some were working in secret and in public to plunge Lebanon into a series of suspicious incidents such as the attack against the sheikhs. “Such acts aim to incite strife between the sons of one homeland in the service of regional sides that benefit from moving the flames from one Arab country to another,” added Hariri, who has repeatedly warned against a spillover from the Syria crisis.

“I do not want to anticipate the results of the judiciary’s efforts or put forward any stance, but the situation is too serious to be treated with tranquilizers and resorting to the escape policy,” he said.

“There is a regional side, precisely the regime of Bashar Assad, that does not want Lebanon to rest, but finds in igniting strife among the Lebanese, specifically between Sunnis and Shiites, a weapon in the face of the Arabs and the world that would save this regime from falling,” Hariri added.

The Daily Star - Lebanon