BEIRUT, May 24 (Reuters) - The Lebanese fear the spread of Iraq-style Jihadist violence in a country known as the liberal heart of the Arab world after Islamist militants challenged the army this week.
"We thought we have seen it all, but this form of extremism, which is destroying Iraq, is new to us," Charbel Bassil, who runs Le Chef restaurant in Beirut, told Reuters.
The army has been battling Fatah al-Islam, a militant group which shares the ideology of al Qaeda, in northern Lebanon.
"These groups will only multiply as long as Saudis, Iranians, Syrians and Israelis and God knows who keep using Lebanon as a theatre (to settle scores)," Bassil said.
The usually packed Le Chef was empty on Thursday, with businesses hit across Beirut by violence this week, including two bombs in the capital and a third just to the east.
Daily bloodshed in Iraq, where Islamist militants have been a major player in the fighting, has raised concerns that Lebanon could see something similar.
"We have seen what these groups can do in Iraq. Our government has waited too long to begin cracking down on them," businessman George Boulos said, dipping into a bowl of humous.
"Militants have been operating in the north for years. All the Lebanese I know, both Muslims and Christians, understand that they do not represent Islam," he said.
Northern Lebanon, where Fatah al-Islam is based, has a different flavour to Beirut, a liberal city bustling with bars and restaurants. Tripoli is a largely conservative Sunni Muslim city, and its political leaders have long complained of neglect by the government in Beirut.
But politics, not guns, has mostly been the norm since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, when Sunni Islamist militant factions existed but secular groups held more sway. ' In 2000, Islamist militants clashed with the army near Tripoli and 40 people were killed.
"It takes a lot to scare the Lebanese off the streets. But fear of bombs on an Iraq scale has done just that," said Hala Hammoud, a mother of two children.
Dozens of people, including civilians and at least 22 militants and 32 soldiers have been killed in this week's clashes between the army and Fatah al-Islam -- Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the civil war.
While many supported the army's operations, some were not sure that the state could gain the upper hand in the conflict.
"With our luck, these groups will only mushroom and we will have our own version of Iraq," said Taline Kanledjian, who runs a perfume shop in the Hamra district of the capital.
But with the civil war legacy still alive in people's minds, there was optimism that Lebanon would overcome the violence.
"We might have entered the Iraq tunnel and people are terrified, but we won't continue," said Lina Abdel Nabi. "There is a consensus on rejecting violence."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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