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Lebanon remembers Hariri

A year after his death, the country remains divided.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2006



BEIRUT

Lebanon's Cedar revolutionaries returned to the streets here Tuesday, transforming the city center into a swaying sea of red and white national flags as the country marked the anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

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The rally, which drew as many as 1 million, echoed last spring's huge anti-Syrian protests spurred by Mr. Hariri's murder that compelled Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The Syrian disengagement was supposed to usher in a new era of independence from Damascus's embrace.

Yet a year on, Lebanon is deeply divided, split by a resurgent sectarianism, threatened by a growing Al Qaeda presence, and torn by competing political visions over the future direction of the country.

This country is once more becoming a battleground in a broader struggle for control of the Middle East, pitting the axis of Iran, Syria, and Lebanon's powerful Hizbullah organization against the influence of the West, chiefly the US, Britain, and France.

"Lebanon will be engulfed again in a huge power game that will last quite a long time. This is the tragic destiny of Lebanon," says Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community.

Twelve months after his death, the shadow of the billionaire construction tycoon and politician continues to loom over a country that saw the heady optimism of last spring's Independence Uprising, often called the Cedar Revolution, turn into disillusion, political turmoil, and bloodshed.

From dozens of newly erected billboards, Hariri's face gazes benevolently out over a city that he helped rebuild from the ruins of the 1975-1990 civil war. "They feared you and killed you," reads one sign. At one junction, an electronic counter ticks away the number of days in red numerals since Hariri died along with 22 others when a van packed with nearly a ton of TNT exploded beside his motorcade in central Beirut.

In Martyrs' Square where the flag waving demonstrators gathered Tuesday, organizers hoped to revive the spirit of the Independence Uprising, focusing this time on ousting Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian president.

"There is one person who is playing with Lebanon's security and that's Emile Lahoud," says Tarek Balad, carrying a portrait of Hariri. "All Lebanese want him to go."

In an address to the crowd from behind a bulletproof glass screen, Saad Hariri, Rafik's son and political heir, called for Mr. Lahoud's ouster, describing him as "the symbol of [Syrian] domination."

Chibli Mallat, a democracy campaigner who advocates replacing Lahoud, says that the rally marked a "new phase" in the struggle for full independence. "The extraordinary momentum we have gathered again today will have been lost if we don't succeed in translating this very massive demand for him to leave into his ousting," he says.

Yet, like the mass rallies of last year, the participants were mainly Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze. Other than formal delegations, Lebanon's Shiites, the largest of the country's sects, were absent, underlining Lebanon's deep political and sectarian divisions.

The US is urging the Lebanese government to disarm the powerful Shiite Hizbullah organization in compliance with UN Resolution 1559. However, Hizbullah and its allies represent a third of the government, and the party refuses to disarm. The political dispute is paralyzing the government's ability to tackle the moribund economy and improve the fraught security climate.

Sensing the government's weakness, Syria's former allies are gaining confidence and mobilizing their supporters. "There's a new order in Lebanon that is getting ready to change the situation," says Wiam Wahhab, a staunch pro- Syrian former minister.

The political turmoil is aggravated by a heightened sectarianism that is further complicated by the emergence of a militant Islamist trend that has taken hold in the poorer Sunni regions of north Lebanon. "The political differences have assumed very sharp cultural dimensions which is very disturbing," says Samir Khalaf, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Last month, Lebanese authorities arrested 13 members of an Islamist cell, the latest evidence, the government says, of Al Qaeda-style militancy establishing a foothold in Lebanon.

Earlier this month, thousands of mainly Sunni demonstrators, including Islamist militants and pro-Syrian activists, rampaged through a Christian quarter of Beirut when a protest against the publication in Europe of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad turned into a sectarian riot.

The Lebanese government accuses Syria of seeking to destabilize Lebanon by inciting this kind of violence. Of the rioters arrested, almost half were Syrians or Palestinians.

Damascus is also blamed for a sporadic campaign of bombings and assassinations that has forced some prominent critics of Syria to stay overseas.

Many Lebanese say the tensions will continue until a UN investigation into Hariri's death is concluded and the culprits are known. But the commission has warned that it could take months, maybe years, before the identity of the killers is finally revealed.

Lebanon's turbulent year

• Feb. 14, 2005: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is assassinated in Beirut with 22 others

• Feb. 16: About 200,000 Lebanese protest Syria at Hariri's funeral

• March 8: Hizbullah organizes a large "pro-Syrian" march in Beirut

• March 14: About 1 million Lebanese rally to call for Syrian withdrawal

• April 26: The last Syrian troops leave Lebanon ending a 29-year military presence

• Oct. 20: UN investigators say high-ranking Syrian officials were involved in Hariri's killing

Sources: United Nations, AP

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