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One day after the blasts, the area around the Salaam mosque, one of the targets, bore the signs of a vicious attack. Store windows were shattered, the pavement littered with glass. Volunteers with cranes and shovels worked to clear up mangled cars and debris the clock with cranes and restore a sense of normalcy.
The Tripoli bombings—both targeting popular Sunni mosques—came just eight days after a similar car bomb killed 30 people in Dahiyeh, the predominantly Shiite area of south Beirut. The attacks have fueled fears that the country, sharply divided over the conflict in neighboring Syria, could slide back into the tit-for-tat retaliations between sects that characterized its own 15-year civil war.
“This is even worse than the civil war because they are targeting regular people,” said George, a 55-year-old from Beirut who traveled to Tripoli to see the damage for himself. “The country is divided and the two sides are replying to one another.”
Other residents suspected a sinister overarching plot designed to create chaos.
“Whoever did this are the same people that did the Dahiyeh bombing. They are trying to create discord,” said Ali, 44, a congregant of the Salaam mosque.
In the afternoon heat, the mosque’s imam, Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, arrived with Sheik Salem al-Refai of Taqwa mosque. Taqwa was the target of the first of the two attacks, which were spaced minutes apart and meant to hit congregants exiting Friday prayer.
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“Tripoli is the only secure city in Lebanon, and that is because of its people,” said Sheik Baroudi, flanked as he spoke by Kalashnikov-toting gunmen. They followed him into the mosque for a brief service.
The hardline Salafi preachers had earlier issued a statement saying that if the government could not protect the city, citizens would be forced to take matters into their own hands. The warning was already outdated, as gunmen of all stripes could be seen patrolling the bombsite.
Tensions have risen in tandem with the severity of the 2.5 year Syrian revolt turned civil war, with clashes breaking out with increased frequency and severity between the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen. Sunni residents fought alongside Syrian rebels in the battle for Qusayr in neighboring Homs province, pitting them against their Lebanese brethren of the Shiite movement Hezbollah. Until now, the war has remained largely across the border.
But Sheikhs Baroudi and Rifai have been outspoken in their support for the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and condemnations of Hezbollah’s involvement, and many locals here linked the blasts to their unconcealed politics.
The gleaming white Salaam mosque was strangely serene on Saturday, with light streaming in through the blasted windows. The stained glass adorning the ceiling had crashed to the floor. Midday sun reflected on a teal chandelier, its crystal arms twisted.
“It is still like a dream. Until now I haven’t been able to process what happened,” said Atef, a 32-year-old architect who was inside praying when the blast hit. “There was a huge boom and the force was like a vacuum. It just sucked the windows in.”
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He looked at the gunmen now standing in the mosque. “This for us is necessary protection,” he said. “We are not responsible for security — that is the state’s job. But the state is not treating everyone equally.”
Outside, Sally Khalaf, a young activist, had been working with cleanup volunteers from 8 a.m. She said that while Tripoli residents are joining together in donating blood and gathering funds for families to rebuild their destroyed homes, the deteriorating security situation is increasingly oppressive.
A few weeks before the attacks, she and others had tried to organize a Ramadan iftar (feast). “Tripoli residents have less and less say,” she said. “Our iftar was something we wanted to do for everyone, but the officials didn’t let us close off the roads,” she said. “They said it would disturb people. Then you see these gunmen—how often do they close off the whole city?”
On the grassy traffic median in front of the mosque, a group of medics from the Islamic Medical Association in Lebanon stood at attention in bright orange bodysuits with crescent insignia. They had been working since the previous afternoon.
“We were the first ones to respond. We arrived less than 15 minutes after the attack,” said Ahmed, an 18-year-old medic. He said the explosion left a large crater in the ground. It was already being filled in with gravel. “This is the first time we’ve seen anything like this in our lives.”
Equally disturbing for the medical team was that their organization had been nimbler than any government responder.
“Even after we arrived it took a good while for anyone else to arrive. No army, no internal security, no other ambulances… just us,” Ahmed said.
“Just look, there is the state,” said fellow medic Abdel Ghani, 21, pointing to a group of internal security force members standing around across the street from the blast site, performing no visible task.
“And here are the people,” he said, looking at the mosque, where dozens of uniformed young Boy and Girl Scouts and volunteers were working to remove the sharp, heavy wreckage by hand.
“Now you tell me which one works,” he said.