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In neglected Tripoli, street fighters quietly take control
File - A Lebanese gunman points his rifle as other takes up position in the neighbourhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh in Tripoli, during clashes. (REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim)
File - A Lebanese gunman points his rifle as other takes up position in the neighbourhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh in Tripoli, during clashes. (REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim)
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TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Tripoli’s local militia commanders stole the limelight from the city’s politicians as the biggest newsmakers of 2013, and they are expected to keep doing just that in the coming year, with residents prepared for a further shift in power to the new warlords of Lebanon’s second-biggest city.

Taking advantage of the lawlessness in Tripoli, the local militia commanders in the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh have established a strong media presence over the past year, appearing on TV to publicize their ideas and cease-fire conditions after every round of fighting. All originally from impoverished parts of the city, many now run protection rackets that help them profit from the unrest.

Heads of armed groups in the city began to rise to prominence following the start of Syria’s war in March 2011, as violence broke out in waves between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tripoli’s predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and rivals in the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen.

Amer Arish, who heads a group of gunmen in Al-Mankoubin area on the front line, used to work in a car tire shop on the Beddawi highway. Nowadays, Arish controls a significant geographical area adjacent to the northern side of Jabal Mohsen.

Sources told The Daily Star that Arish has begun to confiscate public property where he then constructs residential complexes with a partner from the Ghamrawi family who works in the real estate business.

Saad Masri, who heads another group of fighters, is the brother of Khodor Masri, who worked for an office in Bab al-Tabbaneh that is under the patronage of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and provides social aid.

Upon Khodor’s death in vague circumstances in the summer of 2011, Saad returned to Bab al-Tabbaneh from Australia, where he was living with his family. Saad is currently in control of the vegetable market that provides produce to the entire north. According to sources, Masri charges the owner of every vegetable shop in Bab al-Tabbaneh a protection fee.

Ziad Saleh, better known as Ziad Allouki, used to own a vegetable cart in the city. His gunmen currently control the wheat market, a vital source for grains in Tripoli.

Fighters loyal to local militia commanders are also forcing drivers of trucks crossing to and from Syria to pay them money, threatening to set their vehicles ablaze if they don’t.

Some militia commanders are involved in smuggling a wide range of products to Syria and even embezzle financial aid from foreign agencies meant for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

With militia commanders turning rich and infamous, aspiring Mafiosos are also trying to take over new neighborhoods and markets in the city and force merchants to pay protection money. Shortly after the latest round of violence earlier this month, gunmen targeted several shops owned by Alawite and Shiite merchants in Tripoli’s markets.

During recent clashes, violence spilled out of the warring neighborhoods, spreading to other areas of the city such as Bab al-Hadeed, Nijmeh Square, Bab al-Ramel and old quarters of the city. Gunmen have taken control of each of these neighborhoods, proclaiming them a new front line against Jabal Mohsen. Every time fighting is over, gunmen force residents of these areas to pay protection money. The intimidation has forced many residents to flee the city.

Arrest warrants issued by judiciary against street militia commanders have effectively censored them from speaking on TV as they seek to evade capture. But that has not silenced their threats in private against people from Jabal Mohsen, raising the prospects of a 19th bout of violence.

Adding fuel to the fire were charges against several people from Jabal Mohsen accusing them of orchestrating the twin car-bomb attacks that targeted two Tripoli mosques in August. The judicial accusations have given Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters further reason to launch attacks against Jabal Mohsen.

After every round of clashes, the Army deploys in the two restive neighborhoods, but soldiers steer clear of alleys and streets deep inside the areas, where wanted men find easy sanctuary.

Residents of Tripoli yearn for moments of peace and the days before strife in Syria began, and some effort was made this holiday season to unify its residents, with civil society groups organizing a festival to celebrate Christmas and New Year.

Tripoli has a strong presence in the resigned government, with four ministers in the caretaker Cabinet, along with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, hailing from Tripoli.

Yet no development projects have taken place in the city since 1995, despite rising poverty and unemployment, contributing to an increase in crime and fostering extremism among young men, many of whom have joined rebels fighting in Syria.

“Calm should be restored in Tripoli, which is supposed to be an economic capital of Lebanon,” said Thaer Moqaddam, the head of the Committee of Merchants of Azmi Street in Tripoli.

“There should also be developmental projects that combat unemployment and poverty so that Tripoli will be a lively city again.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2013, on page 4.
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