Hussein Malla, Associated Press
BEIRUT — The State Department ordered all nonessential U.S. personnel Friday to leave Lebanon, reflecting fears that an American-led strike on neighboring Syria would unleash more bloodshed in this already fragile nation.
The Lebanese government's top security body held an emergency meeting and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah put its fighters on high alert.
Lebanon and Syria share a complicated history and a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries. The uprising against President Bashar Assad has intensified divisions among Lebanese religious groups as well as polarization among those who support him and those backing the rebels fighting to topple him.
Lebanon has become completely consumed by the civil war next door. Car bombings, rockets, kidnappings and sectarian clashes — all related to the conflict — have become increasingly common in recent months.
Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, has sent its fighters to back Assad's forces against the rebels and the militant group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has suggested he would to do everything it takes to save the regime.
Adding to the jitters, the U.S. said it had instructed its nonessential staff to leave Beirut and urged private American citizens to get out of Lebanon.
The step had been under consideration since last week, when President Barack Obama said he was contemplating military action against the Syrian government for its alleged chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds near Damascus.
"Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly. Access to borders, airports, roads, and seaports can be interrupted with little or no warning," a State Department statement said.
Shortly after the announcement, about 150 people drawn from several pro-Syrian political groups gathered for a peaceful protest near the U.S. Embassy compound north of Beirut, pledging larger rallies in case of a U.S. attack in Syria. Some of them had painted their hands red, symbolizing blood.
"The American Embassy is an operations room for the war on Syria," read one banner. "Your rockets and fleets do not scare us," read another.
Dozens of riot police in full gear stood on guard, confining the protesters to a square on a road leading to the heavily fortified embassy in the suburb of Awkar. The small protest reflected the potential for a surge in violence in case of military action, not just in Lebanon but across the region.
Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq threatened to retaliate against Washington's interests inside Iraq if the U.S. goes ahead with strikes against Syria, according to Iraqi security officials and militants themselves.
Cleric Wathiq al-Batat, who leads the Mukhtar Army, a shadowy Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, said his forces are preparing for a strong reaction against the interests of the U.S. and other countries that take part in any Syria strike. He claimed that militants have selected hundreds of potential targets, which could include both official American sites and companies "associated with the Americans."
"There is a good level of coordination with Iran on this issue and I cannot reveal more. But I can say that there will be a strong response," he told The Associated Press. "Each armed group will have duties to carry out."
The worst-case scenario for Lebanon would be if Hezbollah, also a close ally of Iran, were to retaliate by launching a barrage of rockets at U.S. ally Israel. Such a move would be almost certain to trigger a response by Israel that would leave a trail of destruction in its wake.
The group has mobilized its fighters in southern Lebanon, redeploying and putting thousands of its fighters on high alert, according to residents and a Lebanese security official.
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