Lebanon,Jordan trying to contain Syria-related violence


Lebanon and Jordan moved aggressively on Monday to squelch the spread of violence from Syria’s deadlocked civil war, the most significant register yet of alarm over the strife spilling over Syrian borders.

Lebanese Army tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into the streets of Beirut and Tripoli to stop a night of gunfights as the Lebanese military issued an extraordinary statement urging sectarian and political leaders to refrain from incitement to pull the country back from the brink.

“The country’s fate is at risk,” the statement said. “Tension in some areas is increasing to unprecedented levels.”

In Jordan, the authorities seized a ring of Jordanian extremists suspected of plotting mayhem with munitions from Syria, while Jordanian military skirmishes with suspected Islamic militants traversing the Syria-Jordan border left a Jordanian corporal dead — the first military casualty suffered by Jordan in connection with the Syria conflict since it began 19 months ago.

Fears that the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad could destabilize the Middle East have been growing for months as the conflict has aggravated sectarian tensions that cut across national boundaries and has sent more 300,000 refugees spilling into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. But those fears escalated sharply on Friday when a large bomb obliterated a Beirut block, killing eight people including Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the top Lebanese security official.

The blast was followed by a weekend of roadblocks, sporadic street protests and isolated clashes in Lebanon. General Hassan, the head of internal security, was a hero to many Sunni Muslims, Christians and others here for his efforts to expose assassinations and other political meddling by the Syrian government, which is a close ally of the politically dominant Lebanese Shiite militant group, Hezbollah.

Mourners at the general’s funeral chanted against Mr. Assad and some waved the flags of the Free Syrian Army battling to oust him. Mr. Assad and much of the ruling elite belong to a sect considered an offshoot of Shiism, while the Free Syrian Army is dominated by Sunnis. The proximity of that conflict and the car bombing that killed the general brought back smoldering grudges but also a feeling of dread left from Lebanon’s own bloody, 15-year civil war.

By Monday night, Lebanese state news media said that at least 4 people were dead, at least 20 injured and nearly 50 under arrest in connection with clashes set off by the Beirut bombing. Three of those killed and most of the injuries were in the northern city of Tripoli near the Syrian border, a flash point with armed groups on both sides of Syria’s sectarian divide.

In Washington on Monday, a State Department spokesman said that the United States would send an F.B.I. team to help Lebanon investigate the bombing.

Although the Hezbollah-dominated government is normally hostile to Washington, Lebanon’s chief of Internal Security Forces, General Ashraf Rifi, confirmed in a telephone interview that judicial authorities had accepted the F.B.I.’s offer of assistance. He said that “technical experts” from the bureau would arrive within 48 hours to survey the crime scene.

In Amman, Jordanian authorities said Monday that soldiers had fought two gun battles overnight against small groups of what the government called Islamist extremists at the Syria-Jordan border, arresting 13 of them. The Associated Press reported that the assailants were trying to cross into Syria.

The gun battles came hours after the government said it had arrested a ring of 11 Jordanians accused of planning to use explosives and weapons obtained in Syria for terrorist attacks against the American Embassy, shopping malls and other targets.

Samih Maayta, Jordan’s minister of media and communication, said the government had evidence that they had traveled to Syria and planned to go back for munitions to use in the attacks.

Mr. Maayta said the group had taken “counsel from Al Qaeda in Iraq via the terrorist sites on the Internet,” and had posted its plans online “to enable others to be able to create the same explosives.” Al Qaeda in Iraq is a Sunni insurgent group named after the organization founded by Osama bin Laden, and American intelligence officials have described it as being made up of mostly homegrown Iraqis, with limited foreign leadership.

Although the events in both Lebanon and Jordan illustrated the seepage of violence over the Syrian borders, the revival of the latent sectarian tensions in Lebanon constituted a more combustible threat to regional security.

Peter Harling, a Syria researcher for the International Crisis Group, said that over the course of the Syrian conflict, Lebanese factions had adopted an informal “dissociation” policy to avoid entangling Lebanon. With the Beirut bombing and violent reaction, he said, “that ground rule has been broken.”

Beginning Monday morning, Lebanese military vehicles occupied parts of Beirut and Tripoli where fights had broken out the night before, typically in streets divided by neighbors belonging to rival sects. By early afternoon, all streets were reopened.

All that remained were a few smoldering tires, a lingering smell and the debris of overturned trash bins and garbage cans used as road blocks. Residents of Beirut neighborhoods where clashes took place said the antagonists were mostly young men still angry at the killing of General Hassan.

With a Sunni officer elite and a mostly Shiite rank-and-file, the Lebanese Army has broken up fights and calmed the streets in recent years. But its military prowess compared with Hezbollah or other militias is uncertain.

An undercurrent of anxiety ran through the Lebanese Army statement.

“The Lebanese Army stresses that security is a red line,” the statement said, vowing “to prevent Lebanon being transformed again into a place for regional settling of scores, and to prevent the assassination of the martyr Wissam al-Hassan being used to assassinate a whole country.”

In another context, the statement might have been the harbinger of a coup. But Gen. Hisham Jabber, a retired military spokesman, said the army meant to warn members of the political class not to exploit the situation. “That it is enough, they cannot make political gains at the expense of the security of this country,” General Jabber said in an interview.

NY Times