Conjecture rife after Sunni sheikhs assaulted

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Khandaq al-Ghamiq is a Hezbollah and Amal Movement stronghold. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Residents of Khandaq al-Ghamiq in Beirut said Monday that the men who assaulted two sheikhs the day before did not belong to Hezbollah or the Amal Movement, the party that dominates the neighborhood.

But residents of Tariq al-Jadideh, a Future Movement stronghold, were skeptical and said the perpetrators wouldn’t have attacked the sheikhs had they not enjoyed some sort of political backing.

Fixing a car near his mechanic shop in Khandaq al-Ghamiq, Naim said the perpetrators should be held accountable, adding that Sunni-Shiite discord would have disastrous consequences for everyone.

“I know them [the assailants]. They are thugs ... they should be punished in order to set an example,” he said. “Who wins if strife breaks out? Who will pay me for working?”

Asked whether they were in fact drug addicts as Interior Minister Marwan Charbel described them, Naim said: “Tell me who isn’t addicted to drugs in this area?”

Sunni Sheikh Mazen Hariri and Sheikh Ahmad Fekhran were accosted and beaten when they passed by the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq Sunday evening. Another two sheikhs were assaulted in the Beirut suburb of Shiyah.

Amal and Hezbollah both condemned the attack and helped the Army arrest the perpetrators.

Naim said he believed Hezbollah and Amal did not want to see the security situation deteriorate. “Hence, they helped in handing the perpetrators over to the authorities ... what is happening in Syria is enough; we do not want it to move here.”

Abdullah Merhi, in his 60s, blamed the incident on sectarian rhetoric used by religious leaders from the March 8 and March 14 coalitions. “Young people listen to these speeches and behave in a similar manner [to those who attacked the sheikhs],” he said.

“Those who assaulted the sheikhs are drug addicts who do not represent anyone,” Merhi added.

“We have been coexisting for decades with members of various sects and we want this to continue.”

Bearded young men dressed in black gathered on the street where the incident took place, some expressing surprise and others annoyance at how their neighborhood had suddenly become a journalists’ hub.

Abu Ali, who works in the Khandaq al-Ghamiq mosque, blamed the incident on poor living conditions.

“Some of these young men who committed this act grew up in poor families. The state did not provide them with a free education and so they left school,” he said.

“They cannot find jobs due to the competitive market and this compels them to become drug addicts and roam the streets,” he explained.

Traffic was normal in Tariq al-Jadideh, particularly near Al-Makassed Hospital, where the two sheikhs were receiving treatment. But people were reluctant to comment and complained that the incident was adversely affecting business.

“There is nothing to say; as you can see, the situation is tense,” said a man sitting in his shop.

Abu Farouq, a resident of Tariq al-Jadideh, said he believed the perpetrators were backed by political parties.

“They wouldn’t have done what they did if they were not backed by powerful groups,” he said, sitting near his minivan where snacks were on display along with a poster of the late Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, the assassinated head of the Internal Security Forces Information Branch. “Those who assaulted the sheikhs should be sentenced to death.”

Another man who asked to remain anonymous said the attacks were an assault on the Sunni sect.

“They shaved the beard of one of the sheikhs; this is aimed against the Sunni sect,” he said. “The sheikh should have resisted them and prevented them from doing so.”

The man said he did not fear the incident would lead to Sunni-Shiite strife. “We have wise people like our grand mufti and Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah,” he said.

However, he warned that Tariq al-Jadideh was a “red line,” that could not be overrun by Hezbollah and Amal gunmen in case a confrontation took place.

Khandaq al-Ghamiq residents said that they would abide by the orders issued by Amal leaders and exercise self-restraint.

But there were others who had a different view. “We would have burned the country had the assaulted sheikhs been from our sect,” a bystander whispered to his friend in Khandaq al-Ghamiq.

The Daily Star - Lebanon