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Sunni Cleric Rises To Challenge Hezbollah In Lebanon
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Sunni Cleric Rises To Challenge Hezbollah In Lebanon

Middle East

Sunni Cleric Rises To Challenge Hezbollah In Lebanon
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Gauss isn't the only thing making life uncomfortable for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The group is threatened by the potential fall of one of its main allies: the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. It's also being publicly challenged by a little-known Muslim cleric, who's recently risen to prominence in Lebanon. From Beirut, NPR's Anthony Kuhn has that story.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On a recent day, baffled motorists veered around the blocked entrance to a major street in Sidon. Now Lebanon's third largest city, Sidon was once a flourishing Phoenician city-state on the Mediterranean. The street was closed off by Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad Assir, who erected a small tent encampment in protest against Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is a Shiite group that arose to resist the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah has a large arsenal of mostly Iranian weapons, which it says it needs to defend Lebanon against Israeli attacks. Sheik Assir argues that Hezbollah should surrender its weapons to the Lebanese army and let it do the job.

SHEIK AHMAD ASSIR: (Through translator) We want this discussion to be within the framework of the Lebanese national defense strategy. We're not calling for the resistance against Israel to be neutralized. We just believe that our defense will be stronger if we discuss this as part of the national defense strategy.

KUHN: Sheik Assir fixes his eyes in a stern gaze. He wears a long robe with a long beard and close-cropped mustache in the Salafi Muslim style. He grew up during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, and he says that to avoid another one, neither Sunni nor Shia Lebanese should arm themselves. The issue of resisting Israel, he says, is actually a distraction from Hezbollah's real goal, which, he says, is helping Iran to realize its regional ambitions.

ASSIR: (Through translator) The Iranians have come into Lebanon under the pretext of the Palestinian issue and Islamic unity. They're not really motivated by these issues. What they're really after is regional hegemony.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: The midday call to prayer goes from the sheik's sound truck. Hezbollah has refrained from responding directly to the sheik's challenge. It has its hands full with the Syrian crisis. If the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Hezbollah would not only lose a major backer, it would lose a conduit for Iranian arms and a refuge in case of Israeli attacks. A weakened Hezbollah could lose its Druze and Christian coalition partners, and with them, its majority in the Lebanese Parliament.

Randa Slim of the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute says Hezbollah's real problem is that its support for the Syrian government is hurting its popularity. And since the so-called Arab Spring, its message no longer resonates with Arabs and their aspirations.

RANDA SLIM: Hezbollah right now is at a very vulnerable stage. Regionally, its resistance narrative is out of sync with the priorities that most Arabs now are focusing on, having to do with nation building, writing new constitutions, building effective state institutions.

KUHN: For now, at least, Hezbollah is keeping up its rhetorical bluster. In a recent speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dismissed the effort to disarm his group as a U.S.-Israeli plot. He argues that the Lebanese army couldn't even protect the weapons against Israeli airstrikes. And if it's weapons the Lebanese want, Nasrallah says, he knows just where to get some.

SAYYED HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Through translator) Do you want a strong Lebanon? We are ready to go to Iran and bring back weapons just like ours. Then we will have a strong army and a strong resistance, and that is how we will protect our country.

KUHN: Lebanon's prime minister and other leaders promised Sheik Assir they would talk with Hezbollah about surrendering its weapons. The sheik relented and dismantled his tents on August 1. Hezbollah then said it would hang on to its weapons. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beirut.

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