The violence is undermining the army’s attempts to assert its authority around the country in the face of growing sectarian violence spilling over from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The U.S. has spent $1 billion to train and equip Lebanon’s army since 2006, trying to create a bulwark against the more powerful militia of Hezbollah, which Washington has designated a terrorist organization.
It also hoped a stronger Lebanese army could help stabilize the fragile country, which was mired in its own civil war from 1975-1990.
American officials said they were troubled by accusations that the military is under the thumb of Hezbollah.
“It is hard to hear this talk that the Lebanese Armed Forces are Hezbollah agents,” said a former U.S. official who focused on Lebanon.
Lebanon’s Sunnis, who largely support the Sunni-dominated rebels in Syria’s war, are angry with Hezbollah for fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Syrian regime is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the war has attracted Islamic extremists from across the region, including Lebanon.
As Lebanese jihadists return from fighting the Syrian regime, their fury is increasingly turning to Hezbollah.
The Iranian-allied group, meanwhile, has consolidated its political power by joining the government and has risen with its allies to become the dominant bloc.
Hezbollah has long maintained its own militia—the strongest armed group in the country with more sophisticated weapons and training than the army. Its political adversaries have pushed for its disarmament, but Hezbollah claims its weapons are necessary to protect the country from neighboring Israel and refuses to relinquish them.
The latest in a spate of assaults on the military since the summer came on Sunday, when Islamists launched two separate attacks on the army in the southern city of Sidon.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut condemned the attacks and praised the army for “maintaining Lebanon’s security and stability.”
The confrontations against the army threaten to whittle away popular support for the only remaining institution respected by Lebanon’s multiple religious groups. If the army continues to lose that support, it will join the ranks of the country’s many ineffective institutions and add to the view that Lebanon is descending into a failed state.
Part of the problem is the weakening of traditional moderate Sunni leaders—many U.S. allies—and the rise of radical Islamist preachers who denounce the army as controlled by Hezbollah.
That allegation is increasingly being adopted by ordinary Lebanese Sunnis.
“The army is infiltrated by Iran and the Syrian regime and is under Hezbollah domination,” said Sheik Daii al-Islam Chahal, a hard-line Sunni preacher in the northern city of Tripoli with a large following and his own militia.
Lebanon has a history of powerful political factions or individuals maintaining their own militias outside of army control.
“The conflict between the Sunnis and the army isn’t new, but it shows now,” the preacher said. “It grows along with Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon.”
In the attacks on Sunday, militants threw a grenade at an army checkpoint in Sidon, wounding two soldiers, the military said.
Within the hour, soldiers at a second army checkpoint stopped a jeep with three men inside.
One got out, tackled a soldier and detonated a grenade, killing himself and the serviceman. A local report said one of the attackers had fought in Syria, but it couldn’t be independently confirmed.
As Lebanon falls further into sectarian strife, the army is struggling to gain the trust of the population and to take control of security. A plan last month for the it to secure Tripoli—parts of which have become a battleground for various militias—has failed to quell fierce sectarian tensions there.
Al Qaeda offshoots are gaining ground in the city, Lebanon’s second largest.
Intense clashes between Sunni and Alawite militants in Tripoli have killed some two dozen people since October. Attacks on the army have killed one soldier and wounded nine in recent weeks.
Shadi Mawlawi is one of those leading attacks on the army in Tripoli.
He was jailed last year for being a part of an al Qaeda offshoot and sending arms and money to extremist Syrian rebels. Mr. Mawlawi said he was released after Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, intervened on his behalf and paid his bail. But the premier denied the story.
“The army is Hezbollah,” Mr. Mawlawi said in an interview in September. He showed a reporter photos on his phone of army vehicles emblazoned with Hezbollah’s symbol, which appeared to be altered.
He claimed Hezbollah used the army to fight a Lebanese radical preacher from Sidon, where Sunday’s attacks took place. The preacher, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, is currently on the run after his supporters attacked the army in June and killed 16 soldiers.
Mr. al-Assir’s fiery, sectarian sermons, denouncing the army as Hezbollah agents, have fed hostility and distrust toward the force. The government’s inability to catch the sheik has infuriated militants, who said the army is targeting Sunnis while turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s militia.
“We lost a lot of good, brave people in Lebanon’s special forces in the battle with Assir. People we trained,” said the former U.S. official.
Alain Aoun, a Christian parliamentarian, blamed a lack of robust American support for the difficulties the military is facing. Israeli concerns, in part, have blocked the provision of heavy weapons to the army, he said.
Consequently, the army is spread thin on multiple fronts. It is struggling to prevent the flow of weapons and militants into Syria, to secure its border with Israel and now to battle radical Islamists at home.
“This isn’t enough support,” said Mr. Aoun. “It isn’t about the amount of money, but qualitative assistance. The aid is good, but we need more to face the dangers.”