Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Has Assir turned militant?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Amani Hamad]

The street outside Ahmad al-Assir’s mosque in Sidon doesn’t look the way it used to. What was once a nondescript side street in the Abra neighbourhood now has an army checkpoint at its entrance. And on Monday afternoon, despite Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s claim that the army would “open fire on anyone” carrying non-state arms in the city, NOW Lebanon saw three young bearded men nonchalantly standing at the entrance to the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, AK-47s in hand.

Those, however, were as nothing compared to the arms on display at Sidon’s Martyrs Square moments later. As some two thousand mourners gathered at Martyrs Mosque for the funeral of the two Assir supporters killed in Sunday’s clashes, Assir arrived with an entourage of about a dozen guards wielding shotguns and a variety of automatic rifles. Though visibly alarmed, the nearby army and Internal Security Forces units made no efforts to apprehend the gunmen.

Such unabashed militancy is a significant departure for the man who previously took pride in non-violence (“I don’t foresee my movement using weapons of any sort under any circumstances,” he once told NOW) and launched a five-week-long protest against all non-state arms. Indeed, if one version of Sunday’s events is to be believed, Assir and his supporters have transformed into aggressors.

At the site of the clashes in Taamir Ain al-Hilweh, where the blood of deceased Assir supporter Lubnan al-Azzi still shines on the tarmac, some local residents placed the blame for the violence squarely on Assir. “About eight cars arrived at the top of the street,” said one youth who declined to give a name. “They got out of the cars and started screaming ‘Allahu akbar’ [‘God is greatest’] and ‘Hay ala al-jihad’ [‘Come to holy war’]. Assir pulled out a gun, and his men were armed with machine guns, pump-action shotguns and knives.” Pointing to a Hezbollah poster honoring a member killed in the July 2006 war, they shouted, “Take the photo of these pigs down,” another youth told NOW.

It was then that Assir’s supporters “began to shoot at random,” these residents alleged. They were unable to explain, however, who fired back, and how two of Assir’s supporters came to be killed. “It was not clear who fired back in retaliation,” said one. “[Assir’s men] could have died from random shots fired by their own side.”

Other residents further down the street, however, tell a different version of events. “It began when Assir’s supporters tore down the banner. After that, a group of people who are not from the area opened fire on Assir’s supporters,” after which the latter responded, accidentally killing an Egyptian national, Ali al-Sharbini.

NOW got a similar story from Muhammad Kaddoura, an Assir supporter outside the Bilal bin Rabah mosque who said he was not there at the time. “As soon as [Assir’s men] got out of their cars, they were fired at. It was an ambush for the sheikh. The security forces knew that we were peaceful, and they didn’t do anything to stop it.” Assir himself declined to comment to NOW, saying he was busy and distressed.

However, a video of the clashes obtained by LBC suggests errors in both of the above versions of events. For one, a man strongly resembling and presumed to be Assir is not holding a firearm – indeed, none of the people surrounding him can be seen holding any. For another, the Hezbollah banner is clearly still erect when the shooting begins. Though many shots can be heard, the source of the fire cannot be determined from the video.

Whatever the truth, Sunday’s bloodshed seems likely to harden hostilities in Sidon between Assir’s supporters and his detractors. As mourners marched Monday through Sidon’s main streets, from Martyrs Square to al-Karameh Square via Nejmeh Square, they chanted “There is no god but Allah, [Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan] Nasrallah is the enemy of Allah!" and “You pig, take your dogs and leave us, the people want to announce jihad!” among other slogans. Time will tell whether renewed efforts to defuse the city’s political and sectarian rivalries prove successful.

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