Sunni Officials Accuse Army of Serving as Cover for Hizbullah

Sunni leaders from opposite ends of Lebanon's political spectrum on Sunday urged supporters to stand firm against the Shiite group Hizbullah, at a time of high tension between the two Muslim communities.

An MP loyal to Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a radical Salafist leader jointly accused the army of serving as cover for Hizbullah, urging a gathering of 1,500 to reject an alleged military crackdown on their community.

"Yes, military intelligence targets Lebanon's Sunnis -- unless of course they are loyal to Hizbullah," said MP Mohammed Kabbara of the Hariri bloc at a rally in the northern port city of Tripoli.

"The military is encouraging Lebanon's Sunnis ... to accept the protection of Hizbullah, for if they do ... they will be found innocent and released on bail," he said.

The charge came amid fears of a Sunni-Shiite conflict linked to the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is reportedly poised to implicate high-ranking Hizbullah members in the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafik Hariri.

The Iranian-backed Hizbullah has warned that the accusation would damage stability in Lebanon, but Saad Hariri -- a Sunni leader close to Riyadh and a son of the slain premier -- has vowed to see the investigation through.

Lebanon's army chief Gen. Jean Qahwaji has also expressed concern over possible unrest after the tribunal releases its indictments.

Dai al-Islam al-Chahhal, founder of Lebanon's radical Salafist movement, said on Sunday his followers were ready to use all means available to defend themselves against "injustices" by the army.

"Our words of truth are stronger than your rockets," said Chahhal, referring to the artillery of Hizbullah, the most powerful military force in Lebanon.

"If necessary, we are ready to use our bodies as mines to defend Sunnis for we will never accept injustice," he added. "We hereby call for the release of all Islamist detainees."

Authorities launched a crackdown on Sunni fundamentalist groups in the aftermath of a deadly battle in 2007 between the army and an al-Qaida-inspired group based in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon.

On December 1, the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group reported that another movement linked to al-Qaida had urged Sunnis in Lebanon to rise up against both the army and Hizbullah.

Muslims make up the majority of Lebanon's four-million population.