By Erika Solomon
SIDON, Lebanon (Reuters) - Soldiers strutted confidently down the battle-scarred streets of the Lebanese port of Sidon on Tuesday after routing a radical Sunni Muslim sheikh and his militant supporters in a two-day battle.
But many residents were seething over the crackdown, angry at the role of Hezbollah fighters they say triggered the fight and worried that the clashes portend more sectarian violence to come.
Fighting in this ancient Mediterranean port was the deadliest to hit Lebanon since the start of a two-year conflict in neighboring Syria.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, a Sunni firebrand is on the run with his supporters after the army stormed their compound next to his mosque. He has preached against the Shi'ite movement Hezbollah is now openly fighting for President Bashar al-Assad, a member of Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
"That's it, the Sunni-Shi'ite trap has fallen, now only God knows where we're going," said a clothing store owner.
In just two days of fighting, this wealthy neighborhood of Sidon became a war-zone, highlighting how quickly the country's fragile sectarian balance can be shaken by Syria, where the fault lines of violence mirror Lebanon's own.
Elderly women returning to their homes sobbed as they inspected charred rooms and walls blown away by rocket fire.
The barrages of gunfire and mortars brought back memories of Lebanon's own 1975-1990 civil war, from which the country has yet to fully heal.
"We were praying and crying and begging to get out. Finally some of the gunmen said, 'There's a route out.' A bunch of us got in the car, including some wounded gunmen and we sped out under a hail of sniper fire," said a man named Yassin.
He and several residents were trapped in the same apartment compound where Assir and his men had hunkered down in Abra, an eastern district of Sidon overlooking the sea.
"Thank God we're alive. I'm not sure what will happen, but I actually think more gunmen got out than were arrested or killed."
SUNNIS "SET UP"
The fight pit Sunni militants against the army, which usually has a reputation for being reluctant to use force.
Security sources say 18 soldiers were killed, the highest army death toll since it battled Islamist militants in a Palestinian refugee camp in 2007. A medic said 22 bodies were pulled out of Assir's compound but locals with relatives among the fighters say the toll will likely be above 40.
Political leaders of all sects rallied around the army, calling it an attack on the one institution seen to be above Lebanon's chronic sectarianism.
The battle erupted on Sunday after the army detained one of Assir's supporters, prompting gunmen to open fire on an army checkpoint, security sources say.
But some in Sidon challenged that account, saying the detained man was beaten and the response was instigated.
"The Hezbollah guys in the area had been provoking them for months," said a Sunni woman resident, who asked not to be named.
"We're being dragged into the region's problems. I don't like Assir and I wasn't a follower but still, I feel the Sunnis are being set up".
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni whose government was toppled by Hezbollah, said the Shi'ite group stirred tensions by putting up security outposts and provoking residents, but he also laid the blame on Assir.
"The major sin of which Hezbollah is responsible ... should not be used as a pretext to break the law or to use weapons against the posts of the Lebanese army," he said in a statement.
Assir evoked little sympathy from most Sunnis, yet many see double standards in the army's tough response in Sidon and its inaction earlier this month when Hezbollah fighters killed an unarmed protester in Beirut - in plain view of the military.
"What this all means is that Hezbollah is now truly the state. I swear there were Hezbollah fighters here," said the clothing store owner. "And if you were surprised by the arms that were in the mosque, go down the hill and see what their groups were firing up at us here."
"Whose rockets do you think hit the complex?"
Some residents showed pictures on their mobiles of gunmen out of uniform as proof of their claims. Reuters reporters present during the clashes saw some Hezbollah militants outside the fighting area but did not see any engaged in combat.
As traffic returned to the streets, shopkeepers swept up shattered storefronts and mangled limbs of plastic mannequins.
The mayor of Abra, Walid Mushantaf, estimated at least $20 million in damage had been done to the blocks hit by fighting, where torched cars and bullet casings littered the streets.
Despite calls for attacks on the army by hardline Sunni groups on Monday, so far the fighting has subsided. But many residents fear revenge attacks and a cycle of violence that could eventually drag Lebanon back into war.
Thick black smoke rose from Assir's mosque compound on Tuesday as the army detonated explosives and checked for booby-traps. The streets nearby were still littered with makeshift road blocks, debris and electric wires.
Army sources say they have found two weapons caches so far - one inside the mosque and another in the next-door building.
Inspecting the remains of the sheikh's headquarters, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel called it a "security fortress" that challenged the stability of the whole country.
"Anyone who sees this would say there were aims to spread (violence) not just in the area but further," he told reporters.
Other Sunni residents bemoaned Assir's downfall as a loss of a tough spokesman for their sect.
"We were excited by Assir ... He speaks up for our grievances. Then he made this stupid mistake," said a young man who only gave his name as Saeed.
"The Sunnis lost their voice, we feel weak. Hariri fled abroad, Assir is finished. But there will be a war once Assad falls. The (Syrian) rebels will come here to finish Hezbollah."
(Additional reporting by Ali Hashisho; Editing by Peter Graff)