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As Lebanon heats up, more fears over how Sunnis will respond

BEIRUT — In the cramped, working-class neighborhood of Tariq al-Jdeideh, Beirut’s last pocket of Sunni control, the walls tell the story of a community in the throes of a potentially profound transformation.

Faded portraits of the mainstream Sunni leader Saad Hariri, left over from the last crisis that engulfed Lebanon, are gradually being eclipsed by a newer symbol, the black flag inscribed with the Islamic creed that is often linked to Al Qaeda.

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The young Sunni fighters who describe themselves as the defenders of the neighborhood disavow affiliations or even sympathies with the extremist organization.

Indeed, they say they have no connections to any group at all, including Hariri’s Future Movement, ostensibly the largest Sunni political faction in Lebanon.

But the strife that erupted after the recent assassination of a prominent Sunni intelligence chief exposed some worrying shifts in the allegiances of Lebanon’s Sunnis underway in the years since Hezbollah seized control of the streets of mostly Sunni West Beirut in 2008, inflict­ing a humiliating defeat on Hariri loyalists.

Tariq al-Jdeideh was the ­only enclave not to be overrun by the Shi’ite militia, after the Lebanese Army intervened to prevent further bloodshed. It remains a scene of flare-ups whenever sectarian tensions are stoked, as they were after the killing of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan in a bombing on Oct. 19.

The clashes have subsided, along with concerns that his death, blamed by Sunnis on the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, would herald a spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, at least for the time being.

The black flag that has been tied to Al Qaeda ‘represents Sunnis.’

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The anger remains, exacerbating a growing sense of alienation from a political system that many feel has brought ­Sunnis few rewards.

‘‘Our sect doesn’t help us; no one helps us,’’ said Abu Ammar, the leader of a group of fighters who participated in the recent clashes and who had gathered at a small kebab shop to discuss their grievances. ‘‘Here, it is ­every man for himself. We work three jobs just so that we can buy our own weapons.’’

The fighters hang the black flag not to display allegiance to any particular group but because ‘‘it represents Sunnis,’’ said another of the men, ­Mohammed Sharif, 25. ‘‘We have no leaders, and we follow no one,’’ he said.

Analysts say much of the blame for the disaffection lies with Hariri, a wealthy businessman who assumed leadership of the Sunni community after his father, Rafik, was assassinated in 2005 in a massive bombing on Beirut’s seafront also blamed by Sunnis on Syria. He lives in Paris for his safety and for the sake of Lebanon, his supporters say, a decision vindicated by the death of Hassan.

Hariri’s absence has eroded his authority, however, leaving a vacuum that even his aides fret will open the door to a far more radical interpretation of what it means to be Sunni in multi-sectarian Lebanon.

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