BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's third-largest city was turned into a battle zone Monday as the military battled heavily armed followers of an extremist Sunni cleric holed up in a mosque in a southern port city.
Residents fled as machine gun fire and grenade explosions shook the coastal area in one of the deadliest rounds of violence, seen is a test of the weak state's ability to contain the furies unleashed by Syria's civil war.
At least 16 soldiers were killed in two days of clashes with armed followers of Ahmad al-Assir, a maverick sheikh whose rapid rise among the ranks of some Sunnis is a symptom of the deep frustration among many who resent the Hezbollah-led Shiite ascendancy to power in Lebanon.
The fierce fight that al-Assir's fighters were putting up showed how aggressive Sunni extremists have grown in Lebanon, building on anger not only at Syria's regime but also its Shiite allies Hezbollah.
"Sidon is a war zone," said Nabil Azzam, a resident who returned to Sidon briefly on Monday to check on his home after having fled a day earlier with his family. "This is the result of all the sectarian rhetoric that has been building as a result of the war in Syria. It was bound to happen," he said by telephone, his speech interrupted by a burst of gunfire.
The fighting in Sidon is the bloodiest involving the army since the military fought a three-month battle in 2007 against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the clashes left over 170 soldiers killed.
The scenes of soldiers aiming at gunmen holed up in residential buildings in Sidon Monday and armored personnel vehicles deployed on the streets of Sidon evoked memories of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
In many ways, the challenges facing the Lebanese military now resemble those that prevailed during that conflict, which eventually splintered the army along sectarian lines.
"It's the memory of this destructive war that remains as a restraining force — for now," said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
The civil war in Syria has for the past year been bleeding into Lebanon, following similar sectarian lines of Sunni and Shiite camps. Overstretched and outgunned by militias, the military has struggled to put out fires on multiple fronts in the eastern Bekaa valley and the northern city of Tripoli, as armed factions fought pitched street battles that often lasted several days.
In many cases, soldiers stood by and watched the violence helplessly.
The army, however, moved against al-Assir Monday after his followers opened fire on an army checkpoint unprovked.
Al-Assir, a 45-year-old skinny cleric with a long beard who supports the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad, is an unlikely figure to challenge the army.
Few had heard of him until last year, when he began agitating for Hezbollah to disarm, taking advantage of the deep frustration among Lebanon's Sunnis who resent the Hezbollah-led Shiite ascendance to power in Lebanon, and a political void on the Sunni street following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni leader.
Last year, he set up a protest tent city complete with public lavatories and air conditioned containers , closing a main road in Sidon for a month in a sit-in meant to pressure Hezbollah to disarm.
There, he kept local and international media entertained by pulling stunts such as riding his bicycle and getting his hair cut in public while he openly challenged and taunted Hezbollah like few have dared before, even taking aim at Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, a figure usually considered a red line in Lebanon.
In February, al-Assir caused a stir when he arrived in buses along with hundreds of his bearded supporters to a ski resort in the Christian heartland, where residents set up road blocks in an attempt to keep him out.
He teamed up with Fadel Shaker, a onetime prominent Lebanese singer-turned Salafist, who took to reciting versus of the Quran at al-Assir's protests. Shaker's brother, a close aide to al-Assir, was killed in confrontations with the army Monday, the National News Agency said.
Despite his zany, attention-seeking persona, the rants against Hezbollah by al-Assir, a firebrand preacher, resonated with many Sunnis bitter about the increasingly dominant role of Hezbollah Lebanese politics.
Many in the Western-backed coalition known as March 14, headed by Hariri's son, Saad, quietly gave al-Assir backing as he launched his tirades against Hezbollah, and several Sunni politicians attacked the army, accusing it of bias in favor of Hezbollah.
Last month, after Hezbollah openly joined the fighting in Syria alongside Assad's forces in the border town of Qusair, al-Assir called Sunnis in Lebanon to join the fight in Syria and accused the army of inaction in the face of Hezbollah's growing involvement in Syria.
But al-Assir appears to have overplayed his cards by attacking the army, the only trusted institution in the country, triggering a backlash.
"The bravery of the army facing al-Assir's well-armed supporters has shamed Lebanese politicians," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads a Beirut-based think tank. He said the army appeared determined to remain neutral despite attempts by politicians to splinter it.
The two days of fighting have transformed Sidon, a Mediterranean city some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, left 50 wounded on Monday, the National News Agency said. At least two military officers were among those killed. Security officials said more than 20 of al-Assir's supporters were killed in the fighting, but did not provide an exact figure.
Machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenade explosions caused panic among residents, who also reported power and water outages. Snipers took over rooftops, terrorizing civilians, and many residents were asking for evacuation from the heavily populated neighborhood around the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque where al-Assir preaches, and where the fighting has been concentrated.
The clashes erupted Sunday in the city, which had been largely spared the violence plaguing border area, after troops arrested an al-Assir follower. The army says supporters of the cleric opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint.
Many people living on upper floors moved downstairs for cover or fled to safer areas. Some were seen carrying children as they fled. Others remained locked in their homes or shops, fearing getting caught in the crossfire. Gray smoke billowed over parts of the city.
The military appealed to the gunmen to hand themselves in, vowing it will "continue to uproot the strife and will not stop its operations until security is totally restored." By evening, the army had entered the mosque complex, though not the mosque itself.
Hezbollah appeared to be staying largely out of the ongoing clashes, though a few of its supporters in the city were briefly drawn into the fight Sunday, firing on al-Assir's supporters. At least one was killed, according to his relatives in the city who spoke anonymously out of concerns for their security.
Last week, al-Assir supporters fought with pro-Hezbollah gunmen, leaving two killed.
Fighting also broke out in parts of Ein el-Hilweh, a teeming Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, where al-Assir has supporters. Islamist factions inside the camp lobbed mortars at military checkpoints around the camp.
Tension also spread to the north in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city. Masked gunmen roamed the city center, firing in the air and forcing shops and businesses to shut down in solidarity with al-Assir. Dozens of gunmen also set fire to tires, blocking roads. The city's main streets were emptying out. There was no unusual military or security deployment.
"The Syrian fire is beginning to devour Lebanon and the longer the conflict goes on, the more danger there is for Lebanon to implode," Gerges said.
Walid al-Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, blamed the violence in Lebanon on the international decision to arm rebels, saying that it will only serve to prolong the fighting in Syria and will impact neighboring Lebanon.
"What is going in Sidon is very dangerous, very dangerous," he told reporters in Damascus. "We warned since the start that the impact of what happens in Syria on neighboring countries will be grave."
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.