BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon's army commander warned the government that the daily protests and riots might get out of control, several newspaper reported Tuesday, as the authorities reported another night of unrest in the capital.
Two thousand people marched Tuesday behind the coffin of Ahmed Mahmoud, 21, a Shiite Muslim shot dead by an unknown gunman in a political riot on Sunday. Boy scouts played martial music and some marchers slapped their heads in a traditional Shiite gesture of mourning.
The comments of Gen. Michel Suleiman showed that the military was concerned that the political crisis between the pro-Western prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the pro-Syrian opposition, which is led by Shiites, is approaching dangerous levels.
Thousands of troops are deployed across the capital where, since Friday, the Hezbollah-led opposition has been convening daily demonstrations to topple the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
"The absence of political solutions, along with the recurrence of security incidents, particuarly those with sectarian tinge, drains the army's resources and weakens its neutrality," Suleiman was quoted as saying. "This weakness will make the army unable to control the situation in all areas of Lebanon."
Suleiman's reported remarks were exceptional in that army officers are not allowed to make political statements. A senior military official declined to confirm or deny Suleiman's quotes to The Associated Press, but the Army issued no statement to rebut the reported comments.
Troops and armored cars have taken up positions in various parts of Beirut, particularly around the Prime Minister's office complex, near which protesters have staged daily demonstrations and even camped overnight. Soldiers are also on duty in the Sunni Muslim and mixed neighborhoods where the nightly riots with sticks, bottles and sometimes gunfire have occurred.
Security officials said two people were wounded on Monday night when bands of young Shiites attempted to block the road leading to Beirut airport, in the south of the city, but were prevented by troops. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The deputy head of the Supreme Shiite Council, the religious governing body for Lebanon's largest sect, appealed for restraint in his address at the funeral of Ahmed Mahmoud.
"It is enough that we suffer from Israel," said Sheik Abdul-Amir Kabalan as relatives wailed and mourners held flags of Lebanon and the Shiite Amal party to which Mahmoud belonged. "It is prohibited to fight each other, to provoke and curse each other."
An Amal legislator, Ayoub Hemayed, also called for restraint, saying: "We will not be drawn into sedition."
Mahmoud's coffin was used as the centerpiece of an anti-government demonstration on Monday night when it was brought Riad Solh Square in downtown Beirut, close to the prime minister's offices. Supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite party allied with Amal, have been camping in the square.
Suleiman toured the areas of unrest on Monday and met afterward with the prime minister and Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the Maronite Catholic Church, Lebanon's primary Christian denomination. Suleiman is a Maronite.
The general indicated that the army was not going to fracture along sectarian lines as it did during the 1975-90 civil war, which pitted Christian soldiers and militiamen against Muslim troops and militiamen.
Suleiman said the army was now different to what it had been during the civil war, but he stressed that "finding political solutions is the best way to keep it neutral, strong strong and capable of protecting the country, citizens, institutions, private and public property."
The sectarian tension in the Cabinet began to escalate last month when six pro-Hezbollah ministers resigned after Saniora and the anti-Syrian majority in parliament rejected the group's demand for a new national unity government that would effectively give it and its allies veto power.
Hezbollah says it will continue its protest campaign until Saniora agrees to step down, while the prime minister and his supporters — emboldened by Arab and U.S. support — have vowed to stay in office.