Saturday, January 20, 2018

As tension mounts, U.S. orders diplomats out of Lebanon

BEIRUT — The State Department ordered all nonessential U.S. personnel Friday to leave Lebanon, reflecting fears that an American-led strike on neighboring Syria would unleash more bloodshed in this already fragile nation.

The Lebanese government's top security body held an emergency meeting, and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah put its fighters on high alert.

The uprising against President Bashar Assad has intensified divisions among Lebanese religious groups, as well as polarization among those who support him and those backing the rebels fighting to topple him.

Lebanon has become completely consumed by the civil war next door. Car bombings, rockets, kidnappings and sectarian clashes — all related to the conflict — have become increasingly common in recent months.

Adding to the jitters, the United States said it had instructed its nonessential staff to leave Beirut and urged private American citizens to get out of Lebanon.

The step had been under consideration since last week, when President Barack Obama said he was contemplating military action against the Syrian government for its apparent chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds near Damascus.

In a separate advisory for Turkey, the State Department announced it would allow personnel at the Adana consulate — the closest diplomatic post to Syria — to leave their posts. It recommended that U.S. citizens defer nonessential travel to southeastern Turkey.

About 150 people from several pro-Syrian political groups gathered for a peaceful protest near the U.S. Embassy compound north of Beirut, pledging larger rallies if the United States attacks Syria. Some of them had painted their hands red, symbolizing blood.

Dozens of riot police in full gear stood on guard, confining the protesters to a square on a road leading to the heavily fortified embassy.

Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq threatened to retaliate against U.S. interests inside Iraq if the United States proceeds with strikes against Syria, according to Iraqi security officials and militants themselves.

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