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Lebanon's Assir: radical cleric at war with the army

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An image grab taken from a video uploaded on LiveLeak on June 23, 2013 shows Sunni Muslim Salafi cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Assir, whose supporters are engaged in a deadly stand-off with the army, gained prominence for his anti-Hezbollah rhetoric but began by proselytising in a mosque in the south.LiveLeak/AFP

Controversial Lebanese Sunni sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, whose supporters are engaged in a deadly stand-off with the army, gained prominence for his anti-Hezbollah rhetoric but began by proselytising in a mosque in the south.

Assir was a virtual political unknown until about two years ago, when he became Lebanon's most outspoken critic of powerful Shiite Hezbollah and its Damascus ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Although he was born to a Shiite Muslim mother, his discourse is openly sectarian.

Assir has often called on his supporters -- who number in the hundreds, experts say -- to block roads, and more recently, to join Syria's mainly Sunni rebels.

Although few have heeded his call, his angry, provocative style has won him mass media coverage in the small Mediterranean country.

The oldest of five children, Assir, 43, has two wives, both of whom wear the full-face veil.

His father was a folk-singer, although Assir convinced him to quit singing and become more religious.

Assir's sister Nohad told AFP he once supported Hezbollah's fight against Israel, "but he left when he saw the truth" about the Shiite movement.

Despite his marginal role in Lebanese politics, Assir has capitalised on Hezbollah's increasing notoriety in recent months, especially over its involvement in fighting alongside Assad's forces against rebels.

In spring 2012, Assir started to organise rallies in support of Syria's opposition.

He has gone from preaching in a garage-turned-mosque in southern Lebanon's port city of Sidon to attracting supporters through firebrand anti-Assad and anti-Hezbollah speeches.

In June 2012, Assir said in a speech that "the criminal Assad has tried, alongside his swine militiamen, to terrorise you and make you kneel by committing massacres".

He dismissed Assad's main backers Russia and Iran as "criminal killers who drink blood".

In a sermon in his mosque, he called on his supporters to stage "a real uprising" against Hezbollah.

"There is a miserable swine of an Iranian project that is slaughtering us and raping our women, and heading this project is (Hezbollah chief) Hassan Nasrallah," Assir said.

Lebanon has seen a dramatic spillover of Syria's war in recent months. Damascus dominated the small Mediterranean country for nearly 30 years until 2005, and although Lebanon is officially neutral in Syria's war, the country is deeply divided over the conflict.

Hezbollah backs Assad's regime, while the Sunni-led Lebanese opposition, including Assir, supports the rebels.

Among Assir's most prominent supporters is Fadl Shaker, a former pop singer-turned-Islamist militant who has dedicated several religious songs to the insurgents in neighbouring Syria.

But even in his majority-Sunni home city of Sidon, Assir has little backing and his conflict with the military has won him near universal condemnation across the political spectrum.

Assir's sister Nohad blames his lack of support on "a universal conspiracy" and condemns members of the Hariri family who have criticised him.

The Hariri family is one of Lebanon's most prominent Sunni dynasties, from which the late prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri hailed. He was assassinated in 2005.

His son Saad Hariri, also a former premier, left the country in 2011, and some analysts have speculated that his departure helped open a leadership gap that Assir was able to take advantage of.

Assir has helped to fuel his own media phenomenon, with a series of headline-grabbing stunts.

In mid-winter, he took dozens of supporters to the Lebanese ski resort of Faraya, prompting a stand-off with Christian locals and a media frenzy.

Pictures of the long-bearded and bespectacled cleric frolicking in the snow with his supporters flooded the media.

Assir "enjoys tourism in Lebanon. He loves nature... He enjoys being social with everyone," his sister insisted.

"He likes to live in peace with everyone, but there is a plan against him. He is sociable, and loves to play with children. That's what he likes most."