MENIEH, Lebanon — For two and a half days, Hussein al-Haj Obaid lay on the floor of a darkened warehouse in west Beirut, blindfolded and terrified. Militiamen loyal to Hezbollah had kidnapped him at a checkpoint after killing his nephew right in front of him.
Throughout those awful days, as his kidnappers kicked and punched him, applied electrical shocks to his genitals and insulted him with sectarian taunts, he could hear the chatter of gunfire and the crash of rocket-propelled grenades outside, where Hezbollah and its allies were taking control of the capital.
He returned to this northern village only after family members won his release just over a week ago by threatening the kidnappers with retaliation. By that time Mr. Obaid, a Sunni Muslim, had gained a whole new way of seeing his Shiite countrymen and his native land.
“We cannot go back to how we lived with them before,” he said as he sat with relatives and friends at home here. “The blood is boiling here. Every boy here, his blood is boiling. They push us, they push us, they push us.”
Those feelings are being echoed throughout Lebanon. After almost a week of street battles that left scores dead and threatened to push the country into open war, long-simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions here have sharply worsened, in an ominous echo of the civil conflict in Iraq.
Hezbollah’s brief takeover of Beirut led to brutal counterattacks in northern Lebanon, where Sunni Muslims deeply resented the Shiite militant group’s display of power. The violence energized radical Sunni factions, including some affiliated with Al Qaeda, and extremist Sunni Web sites across the Arab world have been buzzing with calls for a jihad to avenge the wounded pride of Lebanese Sunnis.
Although the crisis eased Thursday after Arab diplomats brokered a deal to restart political talks among the factions, the questions that have crippled the government for 18 months remain unresolved. It is not yet clear that enough international consensus exists among the key powers involved in Lebanon — Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United States — for a durable power-sharing agreement.
Meanwhile, many Lebanese agree that the hardening of Sunni-Shiite animosities — reminiscent of the Muslim-Christian fault line during the country’s 15-year civil war — is likely to make any future conflict here more violent.
“The Sunni-Shiite conflict is in the open now, it’s been triggered and operationalized,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “This is a deep wound, and it’s going to have serious repercussions if it’s not immediately and seriously addressed.”
Lebanese political leaders have tried hard to avoid stirring sectarian sentiment, emphasizing the religious diversity of both the governing coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition movement. In a speech delivered the day before Hezbollah supporters seized the capital, the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, went out of his way to deny that Sunni-Shiite tensions were an issue.
But after Hezbollah supporters humiliated Lebanon’s main Sunni political leader, Saad Hariri — crushing his weak militia, forcing his party’s television station off the air and burning two of his movement’s buildings — many of Mr. Hariri’s supporters were enraged, and they said they would look to another Sunni leader who would help them fight back.
That sentiment has stirred fears that moderate, secular Sunni leaders like Mr. Hariri could lose ground to more radical figures, including the jihadists who thrive in Lebanon’s teeming Palestinian refugee camps. Fatah al Islam, the radical group that fought a bloody three-month battle with the Lebanese Army in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon last year, issued a statement Thursday condemning Hezbollah’s actions. The group also gave a warning: “He who pushes our faces in the dirt must be confronted, even if that means sacrificing our lives and shedding blood.”
A New Kind of Conflict
The Sunni-Shiite conflict is relatively new in Lebanon, where the long civil war that ended in 1990 revolved mostly around tensions between Christians and Muslims, and their differences over the Palestinian presence in the country. But after Iran helped establish Hezbollah in the early 1980s, Lebanon’s long-marginalized Shiites steadily gained power and stature. They have also grown in numbers. Although there has been no census since 1932, Shiites are widely believed to be more numerous than Sunnis or Christians, the country’s other major groups.
Tensions began to rise in 2005 after Syrian troops ended their long occupation of Lebanon, leaving the country’s factions to broker a power-sharing agreement. Hezbollah established a crucial alliance with Michel Aoun, a former general and one of the country’s most powerful Christian leaders, to oppose the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni.
In late 2006, sectarian street battles began taking place in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, mostly among young followers of Mr. Hariri’s Future Movement and the Amal Party, a Hezbollah ally. The fighting was prompted by hard feelings after Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the cabinet and its subsequent campaign to bring down Mr. Siniora, who refused to step down despite the resignation of all the cabinet’s Shiite ministers.
As the conflict grew worse, there were rumors that Mr. Hariri was training a Sunni militia to counter Hezbollah, and even cultivating links with jihadists.
But when the battle finally broke wide open just over a week ago, a different reality emerged.
Hezbollah and its allies, angered by government decisions that threatened the group’s communication network, sent their fighters into the streets, blocking crucial roads and skirmishing with Sunni militia fighters. Mr. Nasrallah had labeled the government’s actions a declaration of war, but it was a war only one side was prepared for.
A Terrifying Ordeal
Mr. Obaid was one of many Sunni men who drove to Beirut after hearing that Hezbollah was attacking the offices of his political patron, Mr. Hariri. On arriving in the city, he stopped at a checkpoint, where militiamen asked him where he was from.
He barely had time to answer, he said, before the men — who recognized him as a Sunni from his northern accent — opened fire on the car, riddling it with bullets and killing Mr. Obaid’s young nephew, Abdo.
Mr. Obaid got out and tried to run, but the men caught him and took him to a warehouse, where he endured two and a half days of torture. He took off his shirt to show a reporter the fresh scars.
“They gave me a hard, hard time, brother,” said Mr. Obaid, who speaks English with a strong Australian accent, a legacy of 13 years he spent in that country.
“They did not even ask for my ID card, they just hear my voice,” Mr. Obaid said. “They treated us like animals, like animals.”
Meanwhile, as the street fighting went on in west Beirut on May 8 Mr. Hariri’s Sunni militia had proved to be largely mythical: its fighters were quickly thrashed. Some were given orders not to fight, so as to avoid a massacre.
The next day, as Hezbollah fighters and their allies were taking control of west Beirut, one Sunni fighter ran up to a group of young men in the Sunni stronghold of Tarik Jadideh and told them it was over.
“Hurry up, run away, it is over, there is nothing left,” the gunman said, before running off himself. “They are coming after us, and this time with shoes, not weapons, to humiliate us even more.”
Before long, a sense of communal victimhood and rage spread. On the way to a funeral on May 10 for one of the young Sunni men killed during the battles, mourners walked in a procession while chanting, “Shiites are the enemies of God.”
As the pallbearers approached a store owned by a Shiite man, some mourners rushed in and urged the man to close it out of respect. He refused, and the mourners began smashing his windows with rocks and chairs. Enraged, the man got his AK-47 assault rifle and began firing into the crowd, killing two mourners and wounding others.
As terrified mourners ran from the scene, the funeral procession turned into a sectarian riot, with Sunnis angrily destroying every store owned by Shiites in the neighborhood.
At one point, as the rioters reached an abandoned juice shop, they stopped to eat kiwis, strawberries and carrots. But one angry mourner turned on them in rage.
“What are you doing?” he shouted. “You can’t eat these fruits, they are forbidden. They were bought with Shiite money.”
After the extent of Hezbollah’s victory dawned on May 9, revenge attacks began taking place outside the capital. In the mountains east of Beirut, Druse militiamen kidnapped three Hezbollah members, and the bodies of two of them were soon found outside a hospital, shot and stabbed. In northern town of Halba, an angry mob set fire to the offices of a militia allied with Hezbollah and killed 11 of its members.
Much of this violence began along factional lines, with some Sunni opposition members fighting alongside Shiites in the opposition militias.
But with Christians on both sides sitting out the violence, the battles took on an increasingly sectarian tone. And when Hezbollah fighters drove up into the mountains, many of their Druse allies deserted them or even changed sides, preferring to fight alongside their fellow Druse against the Shiite invaders.
As the violence ebbed, rumors of sectarian massacres began to spread, adding fuel to the wounded pride of Lebanese Sunnis and posing a new challenge that Lebanon’s weak state is ill prepared to deal with.
“Rumors of these violations are spreading like wildfire and solidifying communal hatred,” said Nadim Houry, a researcher on Lebanon and Syria for Human Rights Watch. “This will lead to acts of revenge if the state does not act quickly to hold perpetrators accountable.”
In the meantime, as Lebanon’s leaders meet in Qatar for their latest efforts to hammer out a compromise, Lebanese television stations affiliated with the opposed political camps are replaying taped segments that underscore a sense of communal grievance. In one of them, Sahar Khatib, an anchor for the television station that was forced off the air during the conflict, addresses Hezbollah supporters in a long, anguished tirade.
“This grudge against us, why?” Ms. Khatib shouts, staring angrily at the camera. “I am someone who believes in God, not sects. Now you have awakened this sectarianism in me. Look at your victims, victims like me, one after another.”