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Page last updated at 15:13 GMT, Monday, 20 October 2008 16:13 UK

North Lebanon braced for more strife

Saad Jawhar and two of his sons
Mr Jawhar says his brother is no terrorist, and blames the government for regional woes

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, North Lebanon

Abdul Ghani Ali Jawhar, one of Lebanon's most wanted men, did not come home to celebrate Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan this year.

His older brother Saad Jawhar says neither was he at home five days later, when a car bomb ripped through the streets of Lebanon's second city Tripoli.

Two weeks later, 15 armed soldiers stormed into Saad's small flat in Bebnin, a sleepy village in the hills over Tripoli.

Saad's voice trembles as he describes the security sweep during which soldiers confiscated all his brother's possessions. Listening to him from across the room, his wife wipes tears as she rocks their baby son.

Lebanese security officials accuse Saad's brother of running a jihadist cell linked to al-Qaeda.

They blame it for organising two recent bomb attacks on the Lebanese army in which more than 20 people, mostly soldiers, were killed.

The army says they have now arrested a number of the cell's members, but Mr Jawhar, the alleged mastermind of the attacks, is on the run.

Saad says his brother was a quiet, studious man, who graduated from a medical college in Tripoli but struggled to find a job.

"He applied for a job with the security services, but he was turned down because he did not the have money to pay the necessary bribe," he says.

Revenge attacks

North Lebanon includes some of the country's poorest, most neglected areas. Economic hardship fuels dissent and frustration, but people here are also caught up in a wider struggle for power and influence.

Security checkpoint in Tripoli
City on the edge: Security is tight in Tripoli, scene of two recent bombs
In recent months, Tripoli has been home to sectarian clashes between the city's majority Sunnis - supporters of the pro-Western politicians - and minority Alawites, a Shia group that has close links to the government in Damascus.

Many believe that the latest car bombs, however, are revenge attacks for Nahr al-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp where the Lebanese army last year crushed an Islamist uprising.

More than 400 people, on both sides, died during the three-month battle.

The camp's ruins still scar the skyline outside Tripoli. Piles of concrete rubble rise above the surrounding buildings, as if a grim reminder of a threat that has not gone away.

Syria, Lebanon's old political master, says Tripoli has turned into a source of extremism.

Border tension

Military analysts say Syria's troop withdrawal after the killing of former PM Rafik Hariri in 2005 created a security vacuum, and new opportunities for foreign militants in Lebanon.

Khaled Daher
Syria can operate only in a totalitarian way
Khaled Daher, Independent Islamic Assembly
Pro-Syrian politicians say Sunni leader Saad Hariri, the assassinated premier's son, first facilitated the growth of the radical Sunni movements in Lebanon as a way of counter-balancing the Shia influence of the Hezbollah.

But anti-Syrians accuse Syria of being behind Fatah al-Islam, the al-Qaeda-linked militant group involved in the Nahr al-Bared battles.

"Syria wants to spread chaos inside Lebanon, because that's how they will strengthen their own position here," says Khaled Daher, a former MP and the leader of the Independent Islamic Assembly, an umbrella group for various political parties.

Mr Daher says Syria added to the tensions when it recently deployed thousands of troops along its frontier with Lebanon.

Syrian officials deny any threat to Lebanese sovereignty, saying the troops are there to combat smuggling. And in a recent show of better ties, Syria launched diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time since independence.

The move was hailed internationally, and many say it could be instrumental to bringing stability to the region.

But Khaled Daher is among many sceptics who say that the move will not make a difference to the strained relations.

"Syria is a totalitarian state, they can operate only in a totalitarian way, their attitude towards Lebanon will not change as long as their political system is in place," Mr Daher says.

While the politicians argue and speculate, many in northern Lebanon say they fear more troubles.


SEE ALSO
Syria and Lebanon formalise ties
15 Oct 08 |  Middle East
Lebanon and Syria look to future
14 Aug 08 |  Middle East
Country profile: Lebanon
12 Jul 08 |  Country profiles


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