Around Beirut, Syrian images disappear

Since last week's historic departure of about 6,000 Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Beirut, Syrian symbols, too, have been vacating the capital. For the Lebanese, it's a visible confirmation of what had long been unimaginable.

In place of the faces and forces of Syria, Beirut is now buried under a snowstorm of paraphernalia related to Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister who was murdered on Feb. 14.

Posters of Mr. Hariri have become ubiquitous. They cover car windows, fruit stands, coffeehouse bathrooms, and shop windows. Life-size portraits hang from balconies and give passersby pause, as if Hariri were now watching over them as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad once did.

Mr. Assad's authority in Lebanon has long been larger than life. For five years, his image dominated an enormous billboard overlooking Beirut's Ramlet al-Baida beach. The sign, sponsored by a pro-Syrian political party, had been a constant reminder to any traveler that Syrian eyes were always watching. After this week, all that is left of the Assad billboard are bolts in its concrete base.

Yet nowhere is the departure of Syrian symbolism more evident than in the neighborhoods that once housed the Mukhabarat, or Syrian intelligence services. The buildings surrounding the Mukhabarat's former quarters in the upscale Hamra neighborhood had been plastered with Syrian flags and posters of Assad and Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father and the former Syrian president.

Only scrape marks and black paint remain. Neighbors removed the posters from their apartments soon after the Mukhabarat left, but the Syrians took responsibility for cleaning their own property. "They were done painting over their things in a few hours," reported Abou Amin, a hotel manager who shared his apartment building with the forces for the past 19 years. "The Syrians can be remarkably efficient when they try to be."

Across town in the Bir Hassan neighborhood, a roundabout next to the Kuwaiti Embassy holds two empty frames that once held the images of Hafez al-Assad and his late son, Bassel. In the roundabout's center, a monument to the elder Assad still stands, intractable, bearing a striking resemblance to a miniature of the Washington Monument.

Still, some neighborhoods have not embraced the changing of the symbolic guard quite so enthusiastically.

In the Shiite neighborhood of Harat Hreik, most Assad pictures have vanished from windows; however, posters of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini dominate the scene more than Hariri.

In a kitchenware shop adjacent to the former Mukhabarat office, a woman identifying herself only as Sabah complains that the Syrian poster abolition movement is ungrateful. "I love Hafez al-Assad," she says. "He helped us against Israel for many years." Another customer disagrees. "Before, I had to hang Bashar's picture in my shop because I was afraid. Now, I've cut them all down. I'm not afraid." He declined to give his name.

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