Impoverished Lebanese city is target for IS group

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Impoverished Lebanese city is target for IS group
Assad is dropping barrel bombs on Syrian civilians. US drops anti-ISIS leaflets. http://t.co/dNoRtD8kzo http://t.co/evtxcrZxJC
Syrian boys sift through the rubble of a house in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 25, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Destroyed building are seen around a sign that reads, ''Kobane'' in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 24, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26, by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian schoolchildren play at recess time outside their school in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 25, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Children play in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 27, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Toys and flowers are laid on gravestones in a cemetery for Kurdish fighters in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 27, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Hezbollah fighters stand next to the coffin of Shiite militant Ali al-hadi Wahbi, killed in fighting with the Islamic State group (IS) in Syria, during his funeral ceremony on March 27, 2015 in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Police used tear gas and water cannon on October 8, 2014 in Ankara to disperse demonstrators protesting against the attacks launched by Islamic State insurgents targeting the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, and the lack of action by their government. Turkey's military on October 8 imposed a curfew in parts of the southeast after at least 19 people were killed in pro-Kurdish protests over the government's failure to act against jihadists attacking the Syrian border city of Kobane. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - OCTOBER 8: Turkish police intervene protesters taking streets across Turkey to hold unauthorized demonstrations against the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants toward central Kobani, on October 8, 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - OCTOBER 8: Protestors make barricades against Turkish police during unauthorized demonstrations against the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants toward central Kobani, on October 8, 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - OCTOBER 8: Protestors make barricades against Turkish police during unauthorized demonstrations against the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants toward central Kobani, on October 8, 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - OCTOBER 8: Protestors make barricades against Turkish police during unauthorized demonstrations against the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants toward central Kobani, on October 8, 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C) stands alongside outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey (R) during an Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of Panetta at Joint Base Myer-Henderson in Arlington, Virginia, February 8, 2013. Panetta will retire once his likely successor, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, is confirmed by the US Senate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 16: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. policy towards Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 16: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. policy towards Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a prime time address from the Cross Hall of the White House on September 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Vowing to target the Islamic State with air strikes 'wherever they exist', Obama pledged to lead a broad coalition to fight IS and work with 'partner forces' on the ground in Syria and Iraq. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)
Druze men stand in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as they look at smoke rising in the distance caused by fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels over the control of the Quneitra border crossing, on August 27, 2014. Syrian rebels, including Al-Qaeda's affiliate Al-Nusra Front, seized control of the Syrian crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights today, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone (UNDOF) use binoculars to watch smoke rising in the distance caused by fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels over the control of the Quneitra border crossing, on August 27, 2014. Syrian rebels, including Al-Qaeda's affiliate Al-Nusra Front, seized control of the Syrian crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights today, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A rebel fightercarries homemade mortar rounds on September 3, 2013 in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. UN leader Ban Ki-moon said on September 3, 2013 that a military strike on Syria over the use of chemical weapons could worsen the country's conflict. AFP PHOTO / MEZAR MATAR (Photo credit should read MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters in Melbourne try to raise awareness of persecution of Christians at the hands of Islamic State fighters
Protesters in Melbourne try to raise awareness of persecution of Christians at the hands of Islamic State fighters Sept-6-2014
Demonstrators hold placards as they protest against the actions of Islamic State in Iraq outside Downing Street in central London on September 7, 2014. The unity rally took place to address the genocide of the minority peoples of Iraq by the Islamic State group. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi volunteer soldiers march after graduating from a training camp in the central Iraqi city of Kufa on September 1, 2014. Iraqi forces broke through to the jihadist-besieged Shiite town of Amerli the previous day which was the biggest offensive success for the Iraqi government since militants led by the Sunni Islamic State (IS) jihadist group overran large areas of five provinces in June, sweeping security forces aside. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi volunteer soldiers march after graduating from a training camp in the central Iraqi city of Kufa on September 1, 2014. Iraqi forces broke through to the jihadist-besieged Shiite town of Amerli the previous day which was the biggest offensive success for the Iraqi government since militants led by the Sunni Islamic State (IS) jihadist group overran large areas of five provinces in June, sweeping security forces aside. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish riot police use teargas to disperse protesters on October 8, 2014 in Ankara during a demonstration against attacks launched by Islamic State (IS) group, targeting the Syrian city Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, and lack of government action. While air strikes by a US-led coalition fighting IS have helped push back the jihadists, pressure is mounting for more international action to save the town. Some 200,000 mainly Kurdish refugees have fled the IS advance into the area, and Ankara in particular has come under pressure to act, although its response has been complicated by concerns over emboldening Kurdish separatists, who have waged a deadly insurgency in Turkey over the past decades. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 08: A photograph taken from Suruc district of Sanliurfa, Turkey, shows that local residents watch smoke rising from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following the US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on October 8, 2014. (Photo by Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Protesters demonstrate on October 8, 2014 in Ankara against attacks launched by Islamic State (IS) group, targeting the Syrian city Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, and lack of government action. While air strikes by a US-led coalition fighting IS have helped push back the jihadists, pressure is mounting for more international action to save the town. Some 200,000 mainly Kurdish refugees have fled the IS advance into the area, and Ankara in particular has come under pressure to act, although its response has been complicated by concerns over emboldening Kurdish separatists, who have waged a deadly insurgency in Turkey over the past decades. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from the impact of an airstrike next to the hill where Islamic State (IS) militants had placed their flag in the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, seen from the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on October 8, 2014. The Pentagon warned on October 8, 2014 US air power on its own could not prevent Islamic State jihadists from capturing the Syrian border town of Kobane, even as US warplanes kept up bombing raids in the area. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurds living in Greece protest in central Athens during a pro-Kurd demonstration against attacks launched by Islamic State insurgents targeting the Syrian city of Kobane and lack of action by the Turkish government on October 8, 2014. Intensified air strikes helped Kurdish militia push back Islamic State jihadists fighting for Kobane as pressure mounted for more international action to save the key Syrian border town. AFP PHOTO/ LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 8: A photograph taken from Suruc district of Sanliurfa, southeastern province of Turkey, shows that smoke rises during the clashes between Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and Kurdish armed troops in Kobane (Ayn al-arab) city of Syria, on October 8, 2014. (Photo by Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - MARCH 17: Members of a Syrian opposition group called Jaysh al-Islam get military training in Idlib, Syria on March 17, 2015. At least 400 people get military training at Jaysh al-Islam's Idlib camp within the combat with DAESH (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant). (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) - Jamal Hayak is finally fixing up his restaurant, damaged a month ago in clashes between the army and militants in this northern Lebanese city. But he has little doubt violence will erupt again, and he says he fears next time it will be Islamic State group fighters battling in Tripoli's streets.

"In the beginning we used to say. 'This is the last time.' Now we've had Round 21 and 22 (of fighting), so we say God knows," said Hayak, 56, grimy with dust as he fixed his shop, shelled during the four days of fighting in late October that killed over 20 people.

Sunni Muslim-majority Tripoli is seen as particularly vulnerable to becoming a foothold for militants from Syria, including the Islamic State group, to expand into Lebanon. Years of neglect have deepened poverty in the city, Lebanon's second largest. Many among its conservative Sunni residents are bitter over what they see as domination of the central government by Shiites, the Hezbollah guerrilla group in particular - giving fertile ground for the sectarian hatred that militants often feed on.

The city also has a geographical sectarian fault line, worsened by Syria's civil war. Clashes have erupted some two dozen times in the city the past three years, mostly between the neighboring districts of Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. Bab Tabbaneh is majority Sunni, like Syria's rebels, and Jabal Mohsen's residents are mostly Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs.

October's fighting was considered the most serious because heavily-armed Sunni militants led the clashes, launching attacks on army positions in Tripoli. They were believed to be local residents inspired by the Islamic State group and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, security officials have said. The violence raised warnings from politicians that militants are seeking to carve out an enclave in north Lebanon along the lines of the Islamic State group's self-declared "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq.

A security official said both groups are actively trying to recruit among disaffected youth in impoverished areas of northern Lebanon. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, declined to go into details.

So far, it is not clear whether Islamic State militants have actually moved in - only that there is opportunity.

"There are no IS cells in the real sense of the word, but there are many who dream of joining them and establishing an emirate in Tripoli," said one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.

Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said a "sentiment of Sunni victimization creates a terrain where (the Islamic State group) could - and I say could, I don't think they have done it yet - but could try and prey, and gain more and more support."

Many Sunnis are convinced that the army and the government are dominated by Hezbollah, the country's powerful Shiite Muslim power.

Over the years, the ranks of Islamists grew in Tripoli, boosted by the profusion of groups belonging to the ultraconservative Salafi movement and the dozens of Gulf-funded free religious schools preaching rigid Islamic doctrines. Fighters from Tripoli were among Arab militants who went to fight American troops early in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

While the capital and many of Lebanon's mountain resorts have largely rebuilt from the ruins of the 1975-1990 civil war, Tripoli and neighboring towns still struggle with squalor and poverty.

"We count the paving stones we cross on the street, we've got nothing better to do," said Ali, 24, an unemployed chef, speaking in Tripoli's bazaar. He requested his family name be withheld so he could speak freely.

The Islamic State group has succeeded in sweeping through parts of Iraq and Syria in part by appealing to disenfranchised Sunnis, alongside terrorizing its enemies with violence. When Islamic State group fighters seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, some Sunni residents welcomed them out of resentment of the Shiite-dominated government in Bagdad, which they accuse of discrimination.

Lebanon's Tripoli is not as extreme as Mosul, but its mostly Sunni Muslim residents share similar grievances.

The neglect is palpable in Tripoli, a city once prized for its Islamic scholarship, its delicate sweets and the fragrance of the groves of bitter oranges surrounding the city. But it never recovered from the civil war. Its old, elegant buildings are still battered from that conflict. Ugly high rises have smothered Tripoli's groves, and cement-block checkpoints line roads.

"Tripoli is neglected. It has been neglected a lot. Tripoli should be different," said clothing merchant Rashid Noushi, showing where he'd artfully concealed bullet holes with new stock.

Despite the tensions, restaurant owner Hayak said most Tripoli residents didn't want the Islamic State - but the Lebanese government

"We want the state to impose its sovereignty here," he said. "We want the state."

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Follow Diaa Hadid on https://twitter.com/diaahadid

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