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.
But Hezbollah's flagrant support for Assad's regime which stands accused by much of the international community of war crimes has angered many Arabs.
The presenter of a political show on Future TV, owned by Sunni Lebanese leader Saad Hariri, went on a 15-minute rant against Hezbollah this week, accusing its leader of "hypocrisy" in calling for the anti-film protests while remaining silent over Assad's deliberate destruction of mosques in Syria and killings of his Muslim countrymen.
Sheik Assir, speaking at the rally Friday, took a jibe at the Hezbollah protests without naming the group, saying it was shameful that posters of the "butcher" Assad were held up during Lebanese protests against the anti-Islam movie.
In remarks earlier this week, he accused Hezbollah "exploiting" the movie to recover some of the group's lost popularity and accused Nasrallah of trying to "snatch" leadership of the Islamic world.
"Why didn't Sheikh Nasrallah do anything when the prophets of freedom were martyred in Syria?" he asked.
Assir's rapid rise and growing following are symptoms of the deep frustration among Lebanon's Sunnis who resent the Hezbollah-led Shiite ascendancy in Lebanon.
The 44-year-old, bespectacled, skinny cleric with a long beard typical of hardline Sunnis was previously little known, a preacher at the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Sidon. Now he is openly challenging and taunting Hezbollah like few have dared before, even taking aim at Nasrallah, a revered figure usually considered a red line in Lebanon.
Sunni bitterness still runs deep over clashes in May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut after the pro-Western government of that time tried to dismantle the group's crucial telecommunications network. More than 80 people were killed in those clashes.
Moreover, a U.N.-backed special tribunal has accused four Hezbollah members in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leader. Hezbollah says the tribunal is a tool of Israel and the West.
Hezbollah still is Lebanon's single most influential player with considerable support among Shiites and unprecedented political clout. It holds a dominant role in Beirut's government and the prime minister is an ally, after the fall of the previous government sidelined Hezbollah's opponents, the U.S.- and Western-backed factions led by Hariri's son, Saad. As a result, its extensive arsenal of weapons and rockets is virtually untouchable for the moment.
Jihad Bahlo, a 23-year-old salesman in a Beirut clothing shop, said differences between Shiites and Sunnis are largely over politics, and that followers of the two sects often get on well on a personal level. A Sunni, he said his co-workers included Shiites and Christians, and no one discussed politics at work "because we are sick of it."
However, Sunnis tend to be fearful of Hezbollah's military might, said Bahlo, who is from a Sunni village in the predominantly Shiite Bekaa Valley.
AP correspondent Karin Laub contributed to this report from Beirut.
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