Violence in Syria spills over into Lebanon

Posted May 21, 2012, at 6:58 p.m.

BIREH, Lebanon — Syria’s war barreled over the border with an angry, raucous funeral Monday for an anti-Syrian cleric whose killing set off a night of deadly street battles in Beirut and raised fears that Lebanon is getting drawn into the chaos afflicting its neighbor.

The violence is a reflection of Lebanon’s political dysfunction, a legacy of years of civil war when the country became a proxy battleground for other nations. Lebanon walks a fragile fault line over Syria, which had troops on the ground here for nearly 30 years until 2005 and still has strong ties to Lebanon’s security services.

To many observers, it was only a matter of time before the violence in Syria infected Lebanon. The U.N. estimates the Syrian conflict has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2011, when President Bashar Assad started cracking down on a popular uprising.

“The Syrian regime is seeking to sow chaos in Lebanon!” Khaled Daher, a Sunni member of parliament, said during a fiery speech Monday at the funeral for Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid, the slain anti-Syrian cleric. “But we will not be scared.”

Daher stood surrounded by Sunni clerics and armed gunmen in the northern village of Bireh, Abdul-Wahid’s hometown. Syria is visible across the border, on the other side of a green valley dotted with homes and farms.

Gunmen shouting “Down with Bashar!” roamed the streets ahead of the funeral procession, which drew thousands of people who fired their rifles in the air as a sign of mourning.

Abdul-Wahid and his bodyguard were gunned down Sunday by a Lebanese soldier, apparently after the men failed to stop at an army checkpoint.

The exact circumstances of the shooting remain murky, however, fueling already boiling tensions in Lebanon between pro- and anti-Syrian factions. The countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can easily turn violent.

“They killed him because he supported the Syrian revolution, he was very active,” said Abdel-Aziz Dandal, a 45-year-old resident of Bireh.

He said the cleric had been recently elected head of the local council and was expected to become the head of a regional council for about a dozen villages. Many residents said he had made support for Syrian refugees and the uprising central to his work.

The killings unleashed the most serious outbreak of violence in the Lebanese capital since the Syrian uprising began 15 months ago, as Lebanese Sunni groups supporting and opposing the Damascus regime fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns through the night.

At least two people were killed and 15 were wounded.

Last week, several days of clashes sparked by the Syrian crisis killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the northern city of Tripoli.

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