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In Lebanon, anti-film protests underscore divide

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2012 12:35 p.m. MDT

Tens of thousands of people take part in a protest Lebanon’s eastern city of Baalbek, Lebanon, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, for the latest in a series of protest rallies organized by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Anger over insults to Islam's Prophet Muhammad isn't enough to bring Lebanon's divided Sunni and Shiite Muslims together. The two sects, which have been locked in sometimes violent political competition, hold separate protests. A hardline Sunni cleric accuses Shiite Hezbollah of using the protests to distract from the fighting in neighboring Syria.

Bilal Hussein, Associated Press

BAALBEK, Lebanon — The urge to defend to Islam's most unifying figure, the Prophet Muhammad, wasn't enough to bring together Lebanon's divided Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The two sects, which have been locked in a sometimes violent political rivalry, held separate protests Friday against an anti-Islam movie.

Tens of thousands of supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement held a raucous protest in the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek. Soon after, a few thousand supporters of a hardline Sunni cleric held gathered in the capital, Beirut.

The rallying cry for both demonstrations was the same: Outrage directed at America and Israel over what they believed was a grave insult to Islam's prophet.

But participants in the two demonstrations could not be further apart, underscoring a years-old divide that has been exacerbated by the crisis in Syria, where the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition is struggling to oust a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Islam. The 18-month armed rebellion against President Bashar Assad has claimed nearly 30,000 lives, according to activists.

Hezbollah's Sunni opponents accuse the group of using the protests against the movie to distract from the group's support for its ally Assad in the civil war.

"They are doing this so they will move the eyes from what is happening in Syria," said Ahmed Honeneh, a 37-year-old toolmaker among a few thousand at the Beirut rally Friday called by a Sunni firebrand preacher, Sheik Ahmad Assir.

Sitting with friends in a row of white plastic chairs lined up in Beirut's Martyrs Square, Honeneh said he expects Hezbollah's popularity to drop further because of its backing to Assad. He hopes that will offer a chance for Lebanon's Sunnis in Lebanon to gain some of the ground they have lost.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has called for a series of massive protests this week over the amateurish movie produced in the United States, which depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a child-molester. Nasrallah has called the video an "unprecedented" affront to Muslim people all over the world.

Two Hezbollah-led protests took place earlier this week, and they are expected to continue through the weekend. But Hezbollah appears to be trying to ensure the gatherings don't descend into violence, planning them only in areas where the group has control. None of the rallies targets the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in the hills outside Beirut.

At Friday's rally in the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek in the eastern Bekaa Valley, tens of thousands of people marched peacefully, shouting "Death to Israel" and "Death to America."

"We are all, Sunnis and Shiites, united against our common enemies," said Batoul al-Bazzal, an 18-year-old student. "The Sunni-Shiite divide has been created by politicians and the media to serve the U.S. and Israel," she claimed. Al-Bazzal stood among thousands of overwhelmingly Shiite protesters carrying a yellow Hezbollah flag in one hand.

Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah is Lebanon's dominant political faction and, with its well-armed guerrillas, the most powerful armed force. But as the Syria war rages, it is treading carefully to retain the power it has built up over the past 30 years in Lebanon, a deeply divided country where its strength is resented by Sunnis and some in the Christian community.

Its main strategy for doing so appears to avoid aggravating the volatile fault line between the Sunni and Shiite communities, which each make up about a third of Lebanon's population of 4 million.

It is to Hezbollah's advantage that the crisis over the film has reinvigorated militant rhetoric that U.S. and Israel are the real enemies of Muslims, taking the heat off of both Assad and his loyal and powerful ally in lebanon.

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