BEIRUT — Lebanese security forces arrested 17 men in two Beirut hotels Friday on suspicion that they were plotting to assassinate a prominent Lebanese Shiite leader, a government official said, describing an attack that could inflame sectarian conflict across the Middle East.
Investigators are exploring whether the men intended to kill Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, who has been a leading Shiite political figure in Lebanon for decades, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under government rules. Intelligence reports identified the men as members of a newly established militant cell in Beirut that was believed to include foreigners, the official said, adding that there were suspicions that they belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Sunni militant group.
Such a plot would be a bold and dangerous escalation by the group, which wields extremist and sectarian ideology and brutal tactics in its drive to erase the existing nations in the region and create a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate in their place. The group’s insurgent fighters, who already control large parts of northeastern Syria, swept across northern Iraq last week, slaughtering captured Shiite soldiers and proudly broadcasting the killings on the Internet.
Spreading their attacks to Lebanon, the region’s most religiously diverse country, could intensify the destabilizing sectarian conflict. The most powerful force in the country is Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, which is allied both with Mr. Berri’s Amal movement and with President Bashar Assad of Syria, where the chaos of a three-year insurgency has provided fertile ground for the ISIS group to grow.
Hezbollah has provided Mr. Assad with crucial military help against his armed opponents, fighting mainly in parts of Syria near the Lebanese border and around Damascus, the Syrian capital; the presence of the ISIS in those areas is far smaller than in the north and eastern regions bordering Iraq.
The group has threatened for months to expand its campaign into Lebanon, and many Lebanese are worried that ISIS, flush with its swift gains in Iraq, will turn next to disrupting the relative calm in their country, or that imitators could multiply in pockets of Sunni militancy in the northern city of Tripoli and elsewhere.
Lebanon is bursting with more than 1 million refugees from Syria, and is deeply divided over the civil war there, especially over Hezbollah’s involvement. The group says it sent its fighters to intervene on Mr. Assad’s side to defend against the extremism that threatens the region. Its main Sunni rivals in Lebanon, the Future Movement, say Hezbollah has made the sectarian conflict in the region worse by helping to crush an uprising by Syria’s Sunni majority. While Lebanese militants have joined both sides in Syria, political leaders and security officials of all stripes here have tried to keep the fighting from spreading back across the border into Lebanon.
On Friday, a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb at a checkpoint in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, killing a security officer and wounding more than 20 people. The attack was the first car bombing in the country in nearly three months. Coupled with the arrests in Beirut, the attack in the Bekaa sent ripples of anxiety through a country that had been cautiously enjoying a respite.
Sunni militant groups detonated a number of car bombs in Hezbollah-dominated areas over the past year, killing scores of civilians, but there had been no attacks since March, when Hezbollah and the Syrian army drove insurgents out of much of the area along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
In the raid Friday, security forces blocked off numerous streets in Hamra, the main commercial district of West Beirut, and surrounded the Napoleon Hotel. In the narrow streets outside the hotel, lined with shops, bars and apartments, dozens of officers cleared pedestrians off the sidewalks and then led 14 men out with their heads covered. Three more men were arrested at the Casa D’Or hotel a short distance away.
Lebanese news channels reported that most of the suspects were foreigners from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan or elsewhere. The government official said the men’s identities were still being checked, and declined to say whether any were Lebanese.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Berri’s political party, the Amal movement, canceled a conference that was to be held at a United Nations building in downtown Beirut, and cited security concerns as the reasonsyria - Middle East - Lebanon - Iraq - Bashar Assad - Syria government - Hezbollah - Beirut