The Gangs of Beirut

When the scooter flies around the corner for the third time, Mazen and his friends—clustered outside a south Beirut phone shop—stop joking and glare at the interlopers. The riders stare back hard, then are gone.

"Amal Movement," says Mazen, describing the riders as followers of the militant Shiite party allied with Hizbullah. "They're from the neighborhood, so it's no problem. It's the Amal guys from outside we have to watch for."

Mazen and his friends, all in their 20s, are Sunni Muslims loyal to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. They're also linked to the Future Movement: Lebanon's dominant Sunni political party, which was founded by the slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and is now led by his son Saad. With the movement's blessing, Mazen and his buddies now spend every night protecting their neighborhood from Shiite gangs they accuse of repeatedly attacking them. Similar clashes have begun erupting regularly across Beirut—there have been more than a dozen this year. The violence has many fearing a return to the civil war that ravaged Lebanon between 1975 and 1990.

The last war largely pitted united Muslims against Lebanon's dominant Christian majority. The present conflict, by contrast, is pitting Sunni, Druse and Christian supporters of the Western-backed government against a mostly Shiite coalition led by Hizbullah. The split is being played out in Parliament, which has been unable to elect a new president since November. And it's playing out in the streets, where Sunni and Shiite toughs duke it out.

The geography of the battle has also changed too. During the civil war, the Green Line split the city into a Christian east and Muslim west. Today the fault line separates the northern, predominantly Sunni part of the city from the poorer, mostly Shiite southern suburbs.

Increasingly, the border is being policed by street-smart kids like Mazen. Hizbullah and Amal both maintain well-armed militias, designed primarily to fight Israel. But these professionals have mostly avoided the internal clashes. Instead, say experts and sources on both sides, groups of younger men are banding together to protect their turf and intimidate opponents. Beatings, smashed shop windows and torched cars have become common, particularly in places where either Sunnis or Shiites still live on the wrong side of the dividing line. Mazen's gang, who live in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Ras al-Nabaa, describe an encounter in February, when Amal-backed hoods ran through the area, beating people, burning cars with Hariri posters and destroying the local offices of a Sunni political party.

Sunni gangs like Mazen's started forming in 2006. Thought to number hundreds or thousands, they've received help, including money, informal training and coordination, from the Future Movement as well as from Saudis and other Gulf Arabs. Many of the young toughs have adopted the red flag of al-Mourabitoun, an armed Sunni faction that was active during the civil war. These red pennants, as well as posters of the Hariris and even Saddam Hussein, now highlight the frontier between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods. On the other side fly Hizbullah flags (yellow with a green Kalashnikov) and green Amal banners. "They are drawing the lines," says one military official not authorized to talk to the press.

The Shiite militias have also been busy training supporters, recruiting youngsters who wouldn't make it into the militias proper (because they're not competent or religious enough) and forming them into street-fighting units. They've even started training small groups of Christian allies.

Most worrisome is what appears to be the increasing radicalization of the Sunni gangs. There are reports of young members being trained by insurgents from Iraq, and the military official said that more and more toughs subscribe to ultraconservative Salafi doctrine that holds that Shiites are apostate Muslims. "These groups are forming around ideology similar to Al Qaeda," says the official.

Experts predict that the lack of heavy weapons will probably prevent a near-term eruption of full-bore civil war. But the low-intensity clashes seem set to increase since both sides see instability as helping their cause. All the leaders "seem to find more power on [their] own than as part of a functioning government," says Habib Zoghbi of the National Sovereignty Movement. Absent an external war—say, another conflict with Israel—he expects the internal fighting to worsen, bringing still more violence to this most battered of cities.