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Under threat of attack, Hezbollah turns Beirut neighborhood into fortress

After attacks in its Beirut stronghold, Hezbollah is trying to protect people with new measures – while also not disrupting their lives too much.

Beirut’s perpetually traffic-clogged streets have become even more jammed in the past 10 days in the southern neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital as the Shiite militant group Hezbollah implements intensive security measures to head off retaliatory attacks spurred by anger over its role in Syria. 

Hezbollah men wearing rubber surgical gloves man checkpoints at the entrances to the southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, searching all vehicles entering the area. They open hoods, inspect trunks, and pat doors to see if they sound hollow or could be packed with explosives.

“It is annoying, but what choice do we have? We are under attack,” says Mohammed Atwe, a local resident sitting in his car in a line at a checkpoint.

After a recent deadly car bomb attack in southern Beirut, Hezbollah finds itself in a position similar to that of its enemies in Israel and the West in the post-9/11 era – trying to maintain security without causing too much disruption to people’s lives.

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And following deadly twin car bombings last week against two Sunni mosques in Tripoli that left at least 47 people dead, Sunni residents of that city are mulling setting up local vigilante groups to help provide security. 

On August 15, a powerful car bomb exploded in the Rweiss quarter of southern Beirut, killing 30 people in what was the deadliest single bomb attack since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. The bombing was preceded in July by a smaller car bomb attack in the neighboring Bir al-Abed quarter, which wounded more than 50 people and in May by a rocket barrage that struck the Shiyah district, wounding four people.

The attacks on southern Beirut have been accompanied by a string of roadside bombings against suspected Hezbollah vehicles in the Bekaa Valley and cross-border rocket strikes against Shiite towns and villages in the northern Bekaa. The most recent rocket attack occurred on August 18 when five rockets struck the Hermel area of the northern Bekaa without causing casualties. A Syrian rebel group called the Marwan Hadid Brigades claimed responsibility.

A decade ago, as the first pinpricks of insurgency were being felt in Iraq after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, commentators warned of the “Lebanonization” of Iraq. Today, however, newspaper headlines talk about the possible “Iraqization” of Lebanon, suggesting that car bombs and sectarian strife could soon become the norm.

Building threat

The attacks against Hezbollah and Shiite areas are seen as retaliation for the Shiite group’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of the regime. Hezbollah has deployed thousands of its battle-hardened fighters as well as new recruits to serve 30-day tours in some of the most bitterly-contested fronts in the Syrian war, including Damascus, the Deraa Province in the south, the central western city of Homs and the Aleppo province in the north, according to sources close to the group.

Expectations of further bombings in Shiite-populated areas are high, strengthened by the discovery in recent days of militant Sunni cells and caches of explosives and weapons. Last weekend, a vehicle packed with 5,500 pounds of explosive split among five boxes, plus fuses and detonators, was discovered parked in Naameh, a Sunni town nine miles south of Beirut.

Three men, a Lebanese and two Palestinian brothers, were arrested and the Lebanese security agencies released photographs of two men also wanted in connection with the vehicle. The three men reportedly admitted to planning to detonate the car bomb in an unspecified Shiite area.

Last Wednesday, Lebanese security forces intercepted a truck coming from Syria carrying 10 107-millimeter rockets. The driver reportedly was a Lebanese from the Wadi Khaled area of north Lebanon, where support for the Syrian rebels runs high.

“The situation in Lebanon is very dangerous and it requires exceptional internal efforts to confront it,” said Gen. Jean Qahwaji, commander of the Lebanese Army, in a speech on Wednesday.

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On an evening last week, long queues of vehicles formed at the entrances to the southern suburbs. In the Haret Hreik neighborhood, several young men checked two cars at a time while other men sat in an SUV, the metallic butt of an AK-47 rifle visible through the window. One man read the number plates of queuing cars and checked them off against what was presumably a list of suspect vehicles on the clipboard he was holding.

Earlier in the week, the Future Movement, a Sunni political rival to Hezbollah, criticized the security measures, declaring that the state should be responsible for providing security, not a political party. But Ali Miqdad, a Hezbollah lawmaker, responded on Thursday by telling a local radio station that “every Lebanese, not just Hezbollah or security institutions, should act as guards to protect this country.”

Hezbollah’s critics accuse the party of being a state-within-a-state because of its powerful military wing and extensive social-welfare apparatus which operate independently of the Lebanese government. 

The security restrictions are already affecting business in the southern suburbs. Residents say that many families have relocated temporarily to their hometowns or villages elsewhere in Lebanon.

“People from outside Dahiyah are avoiding the area for now,” says Hassan Saleh, a fruit and vegetable salesman, using the Arabic word for “suburb,” which is the name given to the southern district of Beirut. “Those living here are staying at home and not going out.”

It remains to be seen how long the local residents will tolerate the security restrictions. But the threat of further attacks remains high, especially in light of looming events that draw crowds.

Security concerns have led to the cancellation of a commemoration that was set for Aug. 31 to remember the disappearance of a revered Shiite cleric in Libya in 1978. In November, Shiites will mark the holy month of Muharram, which includes daily gatherings that culminate in the Ashura ceremony, a public commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in battle. In 2004, Sunni jihadist suicide bombers killed at least 178 Shiites gathered for Ashura ceremonies in Karbala and Baghdad.