Region's strife tears at Lebanon's fragile seams
While the murder of a former prime minister two years ago triggered the "Cedar Revolution" that inspired hope for a new era of prosperity, today Lebanon is bitterly divided, paralyzed by political strife.Skip to next paragraph
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As it prepared to mark the second anniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination Wednesday, explosions Tuesday killed three people in a town near Beirut, another sign that Lebanon's hope for stability and peace are far from being realized.
"We are being dragged into a big regional conflict and power play," says Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. "On one side we are trying to establish ... independence and on the other side we are confronted by the state of Hizbullah backed by the Syrians and the Iranians."
At stake is the survival of the government – one the West holds up as an example for democratic reform in the region – said Prime Minister Fouad Sinora in an interview at the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the government building that overlooks downtown Beirut.
"We are a government defending real democracy and real independence, which is unique in this part of the world," said Mr. Siniora.
Tuesday's bombings in a Christian town targeted commuter buses that were hired to transport participants to Wednesday's planned rally.
Saad Hariri, son and political heir of the slain former premier, described the bombings as terrorism. "It's part of the criminal series of assassinations that have been happening in Lebanon," he says. "It's a message to put fear into people's hearts before the memorial to my late father."
The attacks come as the US-backed government remains locked in a political battle with the opposition, led by the militant Shiite group Hizbullah. That struggle has seen hundreds of antigovernment protesters camped out in central Beirut and street clashes between rival factions that have left at least nine people dead and more than 300 wounded.
A substantial turnout is expected Wednesday to honor Mr. Hariri, who died in a massive truck bomb blast in Beirut along with 22 other people in 2005. The gathering beside his tomb will be as much a gesture of support for the beleaguered government as a commemoration.
The mourners will gather just yards from the tents of the opposition supporters, raising concerns that the tribute will stir further violence. However, organizers insist the event will pass peacefully.
"We don't believe Rafik Hariri would like to see a bloodbath on his commemoration day," says Marwan Hamade, a government minister with the leading March 14 coalition, the anti-Syrian group named for the 2005 rally that sparked the uprising resulting in Syria's exit.
The crisis began after Israel's 34-day onslaught against Lebanon last summer. Hizbullah accused the government of tacitly cooperating with the US and Israel in seeking its destruction. The group sparked the war after it abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid (the soldiers are still being held).
In November, six ministers, including all five Shiites, quit the cabinet prior to a vote on approving a UN draft resolution on forming an international tribunal to try Hariri's killers.
Hizbullah officials say the resignation was in protest of the March 14 coalition monopolizing cabinet decisions, rather than opposition to the tribunal. But Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy leader, admits that Hizbullah is concerned the tribunal will be used by its enemies to settle old scores against the Shiite organization and its Syrian ally.
"We have no problem with the international tribunal if it stays within the limits of the criminal investigation," he says. "But we refuse that this tribunal be used in a political context to finish America's outstanding issues with certain parties in the region."
But the March 14 coalition, which forms the backbone of the government, says that scuttling the international tribunal is key to the opposition campaign. "It is the crux of the matter," said Siniora. "We never really wanted it to be used in any manner against anybody – Syrian or non-Syrian. Definitely this is creating certain discomfort among certain people."