TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Jamal Hayak is finally fixing up his restaurant, damaged a month ago in clashes between the army and militants in this northern Lebanese city. But he has little doubt violence will erupt again, and he says he fears next time it will be Islamic State group fighters battling in Tripoli's streets.
"In the beginning we used to say. 'This is the last time.' Now we've had Round 21 and 22 (of fighting), so we say God knows," said Hayak, 56, grimy with dust as he fixed his shop, shelled during the four days of fighting in late October that killed over 20 people.
Sunni Muslim-majority Tripoli is seen as particularly vulnerable to becoming a foothold for militants from Syria, including the Islamic State group, to expand into Lebanon. Years of neglect have deepened poverty in the city, Lebanon's second largest. Many among its conservative Sunni residents are bitter over what they see as domination of the central government by Shiites, the Hezbollah guerrilla group in particular — giving fertile ground for the sectarian hatred that militants often feed on.
The city also has a geographical sectarian fault line, worsened by Syria's civil war. Clashes have erupted some two dozen times in the city the past three years, mostly between the neighboring districts of Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. Bab Tabbaneh is majority Sunni, like Syria's rebels, and Jabal Mohsen's residents are mostly Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs.
October's fighting was considered the most serious because heavily-armed Sunni militants led the clashes, launching attacks on army positions in Tripoli. They were believed to be local residents inspired by the Islamic State group and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, security officials have said. The violence raised warnings from politicians that militants are seeking to carve out an enclave in north Lebanon along the lines of the Islamic State group's self-declared "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq.
A security official said both groups are actively trying to recruit among disaffected youth in impoverished areas of northern Lebanon. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, declined to go into details.
So far, it is not clear whether Islamic State militants have actually moved in — only that there is opportunity.
"There are no IS cells in the real sense of the word, but there are many who dream of joining them and establishing an emirate in Tripoli," said one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said a "sentiment of Sunni victimization creates a terrain where (the Islamic State group) could — and I say could, I don't think they have done it yet — but could try and prey, and gain more and more support."
Many Sunnis are convinced that the army and the government are dominated by Hezbollah, the country's powerful Shiite Muslim power.
Over the years, the ranks of Islamists grew in Tripoli, boosted by the profusion of groups belonging to the ultraconservative Salafi movement and the dozens of Gulf-funded free religious schools preaching rigid Islamic doctrines. Fighters from Tripoli were among Arab militants who went to fight American troops early in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
While the capital and many of Lebanon's mountain resorts have largely rebuilt from the ruins of the 1975-1990 civil war, Tripoli and neighboring towns still struggle with squalor and poverty.
"We count the paving stones we cross on the street, we've got nothing better to do," said Ali, 24, an unemployed chef, speaking in Tripoli's bazaar. He requested his family name be withheld so he could speak freely.
The Islamic State group has succeeded in sweeping through parts of Iraq and Syria in part by appealing to disenfranchised Sunnis, alongside terrorizing its enemies with violence. When Islamic State group fighters seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, some Sunni residents welcomed them out of resentment of the Shiite-dominated government in Bagdad, which they accuse of discrimination.
Lebanon's Tripoli is not as extreme as Mosul, but its mostly Sunni Muslim residents share similar grievances.
The neglect is palpable in Tripoli, a city once prized for its Islamic scholarship, its delicate sweets and the fragrance of the groves of bitter oranges surrounding the city. But it never recovered from the civil war. Its old, elegant buildings are still battered from that conflict. Ugly high rises have smothered Tripoli's groves, and cement-block checkpoints line roads.
"Tripoli is neglected. It has been neglected a lot. Tripoli should be different," said clothing merchant Rashid Noushi, showing where he'd artfully concealed bullet holes with new stock.
Despite the tensions, restaurant owner Hayak said most Tripoli residents didn't want the Islamic State — but the Lebanese government
"We want the state to impose its sovereignty here," he said. "We want the state."
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