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Fearful Lebanese Sunnis drawn to hard-line leaders

Saturday - 7/6/2013, 8:22pm  ET

In this Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 photo, anti-Syrian regime protesters chant slogans as they listen to Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, unseen, a hard-line Sunni Lebanese cleric, deliver a sermon in support of Syrian rebel fighters and Syrian refugees, after the Friday prayer, in Beirut, Lebanon. There are indications that Lebanon's Sunni community is drifting away from it traditional moderate leadership to _ in some cases _ hard-line sectarian preachers. The drift is rooted in part in a years-long leadership vacuum among Lebanese Sunnis that has seen the community's fortunes fall as those of rival Shiites have risen on the back of their powerful Hezbollah group.(AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Lebanese pop idol Fadel Shaker shot to stardom crooning ballads that earned him the nickname "The King of Romance." He disappeared as a bearded, gun-toting Sunni hard-liner in a shootout with the army in the coastal city of Sidon.

Shaker's transformation from entertainer to militant extremist spotlights a broader phenomenon in Lebanon: the drift of its Sunni Muslim community away from its traditional moderate leadership to -- in some cases -- hard-line, sectarian preachers.

The drift is rooted in part in a years-long leadership vacuum among Lebanese Sunnis that has seen the community's fortunes fall as those of rival Shiites have risen on the back of their powerful Hezbollah group. That shift has fuelled sectarian tensions that have only worsened with the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's regime to crush a rebellion dominated by Syria's Sunni majority.

Now, in perhaps an ominous development for Lebanon, some Sunnis are voicing fears that the Lebanese army, considered the country's most independent institution, is quietly aligning itself with Hezbollah -- a charge the military denies.

"There's a general mood of anger and oppression among Sunnis in Lebanon of being lorded over by Hezbollah," said Mohamad Chatah, a former advisor to slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose 2005 assassination robbed the Sunni community of its most powerful and charismatic leader.

With many Sunnis feeling that traditional politicians aren't moving to check the rising power of the heavily armed Shiite party, militant Sunni extremists are filling the void, Chatah said.

There are no polls to demonstrate the phenomenon, and observers disagree about its extent. But few deny the trend exists, or that it's grown stronger since Hezbollah openly joined the war in Syria.

"What you are seeing is the flames of the ... Syrian crisis really beginning to devour the fragile Lebanese society," said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

Some of that frustration bubbled to the surface last week in Sidon, where army troops fought supporters of radical Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir. Shiite Hezbollah supporters briefly joined in the fighting, in the first serious sectarian clashes in the city in years. The army says the battle began when al-Assir followers attacked a military checkpoint. Eighteen soldiers and 20 al-Assir supporters were killed.

In the aftermath, al-Assir, a lanky cleric with a full beard and wire-rimmed glasses, disappeared along with his most famous disciple -- Shaker. Al-Assir, now a fugitive, released an audio recording Thursday in which he accused the army of conspiring with Hezbollah against him, confirming that he's alive without revealing his whereabouts.

The 44-year-old Shaker was perfect pop idol material: a pouty-lipped, gifted singer with lyrics that made lovers swoon and people dance. He became a star throughout the Arab world with the 2002 smash hit "The Absent One," incessantly blared from radios and at weddings across the region.

"Oh absent one, why don't you ask about the people who love you? Those who can't sleep because they miss your eyes?" Shaker sings. "You go far from me and forget me. I need you here to care for me. Make me forget my pain and sadness."

He shocked fans about a year ago by turning up next to al-Assir at an anti-Hezbollah demonstration. Shaker later explained that he was giving up singing to become closer to God.

His last public appearance came in a video uploaded to YouTube on June 24, the second day of street fighting in Sidon.

"We have two rotting corpses that we snatched from you yesterday, you dogs, you pigs," Shaker says in the clip, apparently referring to two slain soldiers. He appears disoriented, his greying hair and beard unkempt.

Shaker, whose real name is Fadel Abdul-Rahman Shamandar, grew up in a conservative working class Sunni family in Sidon.

In a televised interview in March 2012, Shaker described himself as a believer, but credited al-Assir's sermons for turning him into a devout man. He likely first met al-Assir through the singer's brother, who was an aide to the cleric. His brother, Abu Abed Shamandar, was killed in the Sidon clashes.

After meeting al-Assir, "I felt like art was a big lie," Shaker said. "God guided me, and God willing, I want to continue this path."

Al-Assir preached in Sidon for two decades, respected for encouraging devotion. The cleric's mother is Shiite, and in earlier years, he used to appeal to Lebanon's sects to live in harmony. But his audiences began to swell after the 2005 Hariri assassination, residents said.

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