The New York Times reports: Lebanese security forces arrested 17 men in two Beirut hotels on Friday on suspicion that they were plotting to assassinate a prominent Lebanese Shiite leader, a government official said, describing an attack that could inflame sectarian conflict across the Middle East.
Investigators are exploring whether the men intended to kill Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament, who has been a leading Shiite political figure in Lebanon for decades, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under government rules. Intelligence reports identified the men as members of a newly established militant cell in Beirut that was believed to include foreigners, the official said, adding that there were suspicions that they belonged to the Islamic State inIraq and Syria, the Sunni militant group known as ISIS.
Such a plot would be a bold and dangerous escalation by ISIS, which wields extremist and sectarian ideology and brutal tactics in its drive to erase the existing nations in the region and create a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate in their place. The group’s insurgent fighters, who already control large parts of northeastern Syria, swept across northern Iraq last week, slaughtering captured Shiite soldiers and proudly broadcasting the killings on the Internet.
Spreading their attacks to Lebanon, the region’s most religiously diverse country, could intensify the destabilizing sectarian conflict. The most powerful force in the country is Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, which is allied both with Mr. Berri’s Amal movement and with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where the chaos of a three-year insurgency has provided fertile ground for ISIS to grow. [Continue reading…]
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported: In Lebanon on Tuesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that his forces were capable of sending fighters to Iraq to support Mr. Maliki, in comments made to As-Safir, a local newspaper sympathetic to Hezbollah. Mr. Nasrallah batted away concerns that Hezbollah is spread too thin fighting in Syria and protecting against Israel in southern Lebanon to join the fight in Iraq.
“We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important than [Syria’s holy sites],” Mr. Nasrallah said.
Hezbollah justifies its presence in Syria in part by claiming that it is protecting holy sites important to Shiite Islam, particularly the Sayeda Zeinab shrine near Damascus, against groups like ISIS who seek to destroy them. The same argument has also been used by Iraqi Shiites militias and the elite Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps fighting in Syria.
The Lebanese official close to Hezbollah’s leadership, however, played down the withdrawal of Iraqi Shiite militias from Syria said. “Just as Hezbollah is prepared to fight Israel and reserve forces to fight Israel, it is prepared for Syria,” the official said. But he said Hezbollah is too occupied trying to defend against Sunni extremist groups in Syria and Lebanon to commit significant forces to Iraq.
Since last week, Hezbollah has increased security around its stronghold of Dahiyeh, a suburb of Beirut, out of concerns that ISIS gains in Iraq will inspire attacks in Lebanon, Lebanese security officials said.
Underscoring Hezbollah’s fears, ISIS recently published a map showing the group’s black flag over Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait. ISIS has been able to create a continuous state spanning Iraq and Syria with battlefield gains made over recent weeks.