The long-simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon have sharply worsened, in an ominous echo of the civil conflict in Iraq
The Sunni-Shiite conflict is relatively new in Lebanon, where the long civil war that ended in 1990 revolved mostly around tensions between Christians and Muslims, and their differences over the Palestinian presence in the country. But after Iran helped establish Hezbollah in the early 1980s, Lebanon’s long-marginalized Shiites steadily gained power and stature. They have also grown in numbers. Although there has been no census since 1932, Shiites are widely believed to be more numerous than Sunnis or Christians, the country’s other major groups.
Tensions began to rise in 2005 after Syrian troops ended their long occupation of Lebanon, leaving the country’s factions to broker a power-sharing agreement. Hezbollah established a crucial alliance with Michel Aoun, a former general and one of the country’s most powerful Christian leaders, to oppose the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni.
In late 2006, sectarian street battles began taking place in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, mostly among young followers of [Lebanon’s main Sunni political leader Saad] Hariri’s Future Movement and the Amal Party, a Hezbollah ally. The fighting was prompted by hard feelings after Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the cabinet and its subsequent campaign to bring down Mr. Siniora, who refused to step down despite the resignation of all the cabinet’s Shiite ministers.