Sheik challenges Hezbollah

Calls his encampment in southern Lebanon nation’s Tahrir Square

SIDON, Lebanon — On a main road connecting the Lebanese capital with the south, Sheik Ahmad Assir kneels under a blazing sun to pray and then sits down with supporters at his anti-Hezbollah protest camp and launches into a new tirade against Lebanon’s most powerful and well-armed force.

“By God, Nasrallah, I will not let you sleep at night,” he vows in a fiery speech, addressing Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

Few in Lebanon have dared take on the Shiite terrorist group in such a public way, but Sheik Assir, a hardline Sunni cleric, senses weakness. He sees a chance to push back against Hezbollah’s domination of the country’s politics.

The growing popularity among some Sunnis of the previously little known local cleric is a sign of how vulnerable Hezbollah has become as it faces the possibility of the downfall of its crucial ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Its reputation as a popular resistance movement already has taken a severe beating for siding with Syria against the anti-Assad uprising, after it supported Arab revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain.

“This is the start of what will become Lebanon’s Tahrir Square,” Sheik Assir, wearing a long robe and white skullcap, said at his protest site, where about 150 Sunni conservative supporters have been camped out for some three weeks.

“They have humiliated us for long enough. It’s about our dignity now. I can’t live like this, it’s enough.”

“May you triumph over the party of the devil!” came a shout of support to Sheik Assir from one bearded protester, who used a play on Hezbollah’s name, Arabic for Party of God.

Nightmare scenario

Mr. Assad’s fall would be a nightmare scenario for Hezbollah. Any Sunni-led new regime likely would be far less friendly to the group or be even outright hostile. Regime change in Syria could heavily damage its ally’s political clout in Lebanon and knock out a third of the “Iran-Syria-Hezbollah” axis of “resistance” to Israel.

Iran remains Hezbollah’s most important patron, but Syria is a crucial supply route. Without it, Hezbollah will struggle to get money and weapons as easily.

Mr. Nasrallah admitted how crucial the alliance with Damascus is in a speech Wednesday night, after Mr. Assad’s regime suffered its hardest blow yet in the conflict when a bomb blast killed three major regime figures, including the defense minister and Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law.

Mr. Nasrallah called the Syrian regime a “bridge” and a “critical support” for Hezbollah’s “resistance” against Israel.

“The most important weapons with which we fought Israel in the July war came from Syria,” he said, in reference to Hezbollah’s monthlong 2006 war with Israel.

In the face of the Syria crisis, Hezbollah 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.

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