Hezbollah backs Lebanon army in standoff

The Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah has so far backed Lebanon’s army in its confrontation with a Sunni militant group — despite the fact that Hezbollah has been pushing to topple the Lebanese government.

The Sunni group Fatah Islam has set up in a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Fighting between the Lebanese army and the militants around the camp has been raging for three days with dozens of combatants killed.

The Hezbollah stance highlights the complex tensions among Lebanon’s various factional and militant groups. Hezbollah — as a Shiite group — is a sworn ideological and religious enemy to Sunni militant groups such as Fatah Islam, whose leader had ties to former al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Such enmity is often bitter — al-Zarqawi pushed for the killings of Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere before his death last year, calling them infidels.

The tensions are long-standing across the Mideast, even though countries such as Syria have been accused of sometimes backing both Sunni and Shiite militants. The strains have intensified, however, because of the war in Iraq that pits the two sects against each other.

Lebanon’s own civil war from 1975-1990 stemmed from rivalries among Shiite, Sunni and Christian factions. Shiite-Sunni tensions exploded in violence in recent months inside Lebanon, killing 11 people, as Sunnis backed the Lebanese government and the Shiites of Hezbollah and their allies backed the pro-Syrian opposition.

The complex nature of Hezbollah’s position on the fighting also reflects the fact that the group has something of a dual nature. It belongs to Lebanon’s democratic system and is the country’s strongest political opposition group, while also being a militant group that has attacked Israel and has backing from Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah has been calling for the formation of a new government in Lebanon and is strongly opposed to the current anti-Syrian one. So far, however, its protests against the government have been peaceful.

Political analysts have said Hezbollah, while supporting the army, does not want to back the government publicly and give it credit for fighting the Sunni militant group. Also, any wholehearted backing by Hezbollah for Lebanese authorities could inflame animosity by Sunni militants against the Shiite group.

In a statement from the group that shows its complex stance, Hezbollah denounced the attacks against the Lebanese army — stressing the role of the army in safeguarding peace, but also tacitly criticized Lebanon’s current government.

“We feel that there is someone out there who wants to drag the army to this confrontation and bloody struggle … to serve well-known projects and aims. We are hearing calls for more escalation and fighting, which will ultimately lead to more chaos and confrontation in Lebanon,” the Hezbollah statement said. It called for a political solution to the crisis.

Hezbollah has good relations with the army, which covertly helped support the group in its war with Israel last summer.

Other Lebanese factions also have so far backed the Lebanese government, despite internal divisions — as have most Arab countries. Some Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps have, however, begun to protest the Lebanese army’s shelling of the camp.