By: Amal Khalil
Published Monday, November 12, 2012
Salafi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir is back at it, trying to instigate a Sunni-Shia confrontation, this time in his southern hometown of Saida. After a Friday sermon berating Hezbollah, he and his supporters went on the offensive on Sunday, leaving death and injury in their wake.
This past Friday, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir of Saida gave a sermon titled “Our Peace and Their Aggression,” in which he gave Hezbollah 48 hours to remove its posters commemorating Ashoura from the outskirts of Saida. The Shia party had placed the signs on the edges of the city as a marker of the death of the revered Imam Hussein.
“We are not mobilizing against the Shia sect,” Assir told his congregation in Saida’s Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque. “Our goal is to bring down the party of assassin.” He said that the “banners of Iran’s party…will be raised over my dead body.”
On Saturday, Assir’s supporters threatened to take to Saida’s streets to remove Hezbollah’s banners and launch a sit-in against the Shia party’s “complete domination of the city.” In particular, they demanded the removal of an Israeli armored personnel carrier that the Resistance had captured and placed it in one of the city’s main roundabouts.
The authorities, including Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel and a number of other local and security officials, contacted Assir in an attempt to calm him down. Hezbollah’s leadership was also contacted to convince them to take down their banners to help defuse the situation.
Meanwhile, the head of army intelligence in the South sent a message to Assir warning him that the security forces planned to deal firmly with any attempts to undermine the city’s stability. Hezbollah, for its part, heeded the advice to take down their signs from major intersections in Saida.
On Sunday morning, Assir seemed ready to calm things down, telling the press that he did not plan to make any moves as long as the banners had been taken down. By the afternoon, his tone changed completely; a call for the sheikh’s supporters to gather in the mosque appeared on Assir’s Facebook page.
The reason for this change of heart was news that Ashoura banners were being hung on street poles in an area not far from the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque. Others believe that the real reason was to create a divergence for an incident involving Assir’s 15-year-old son, Omar, on the coastal highway.
Omar was apparently stopped at an Internal Security Forces (ISF) checkpoint for driving a car with tinted windows without the necessary paperwork from the interior ministry. The ISF also discovered that the driver was underaged and didn’t have a license, so they detained him and his vehicle.
Within minutes, the ISF checkpoint was mobbed by the sheikh and his supporters, demanding that Omar be released. After threatening the commanding officer, Assir succeeded in retrieving his son and left.
The army quickly deployed to the area where the Ashoura banners were reportedly being hung, hoping to stave off any confrontations between the young men who had congregated in the area awaiting Assir’s arrival.
News soon came that the sheikh’s motorcade was instead headed toward Taameer, a poor and religiously mixed neighborhood that lies on the edge of the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp. As the sound of gunfire rose from the area, few local officials were able to reach Taameer to prevent any confrontation.
Sheikh Zayd Daher, Hezbollah’s representative in Saida, was among the first to arrive at the scene. He tried to convince local residents to take down a poster hung quite some time ago that included an image of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, to which Assir’s supporters were objecting.
This is when a motorcade of seven cars, carrying Assir and his companions, arrived at the scene and immediately started firing in all directions. The first to fall was 14-year-old Ali Sharbini, an Egyptian national, who later died. When Daher tried to pick up the wounded child, he was shot twice, in the stomach and shoulder.
The response from some local residents was near immediate, as they started firing on Assir’s motorcade, killing two of his bodyguards.
Sunday’s events are nothing more than a dress rehearsal for a civil war, featuring sectarian incitement followed by armed attacks. New lines of confrontation were drawn as people fled their tense neighborhoods seeking shelter.
Later, Assir claimed in a statement that he and a group of supporters had gone to the Taameer area to peacefully remove a provocative banner placed there by Hezbollah. Upon arriving, the statement said, they were fired on with intent to kill. In order to open a safe passage for the sheikh, his companions were forced to fire back. It concluded by saying, “We were peaceful, but we fell into a trap.”
At the request of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Minister of Interior Charbel headed to Saida on Sunday evening to hold a meeting with regional security officials. In the meantime the army was deployed throughout the city to prevent any roads from being blocked and to maintain calm.
After his meeting, Charbel recommended that the government issue an order that Saida become a military zone. This would allow the army to set up checkpoints and deploy troops to impose order in the city. For their part, the two Shia parties – Amal and Hezbollah – called on their supporters to remain calm and avoid any provocation that may lead to further confrontations.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.