The assassination of veteran Prime Minister Rashid Karami plunges Lebanon deeper into uncertainty at a time it already faces acute political and economic crises. Mr. Karami died after being injured yesterday when the Army helicopter in which he was traveling from Tripoli to Beirut was damaged by an explosion. An inquiry was immediately set up to establish the cause of the blast. But military sources say a bomb was placed behind the prime minister's seat.
President Amin Gemayel now faces a tough task: He must find a replacement for Karami who will prove acceptable to the country's Christians and Muslims - as well as to Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon. There are few Sunni Muslim politicians who could meet these requirements and who want the job.
Despite a 17-month political rift with his tough-minded prime minister, Mr. Gemayel issued a lengthy eulogy praising Karami and declared a national week of mourning.
Christian leaders who had even more bitterly opposed Karami's pro-Syrian policies were equally swift to condemn his assassination. The Christian Lebanese Forces militia, which also fiercely attacked Karami's positions during his lifetime, praised him as a ``great political personality'' and denounced his murder.
While Gemayel conferred with Christian political and security advisers, senior Muslim politicians held parallel discussions in west Beirut. The Muslim leaders said that they had authorized the Shiite Muslim Speaker of parliament, Hussein Husseini, to fill the vacuum in consultation with Gemayel.
Political observers say this will help reduce the negative impact of Karami's sudden death on the already critical political situation.
Karami had resigned four weeks ago to protest the political deadlock that was gripping the country and preventing the government from tackling Lebanon's deepening economic crisis. Since January 1986, when Gemayel and hard-line Christian leaders rejected a Syrian-backed peace accord for Lebanon's conflict, the Cabinet has been virtually ineffective. The stymied pact would have altered the balance of political and economic power among Lebanon's main communities - Christian, Sunni, Shiite, and Druze. Many Christians felt it would erode their traditional prerogatives.
Karami's resignation posed a dilemma for Gemayel. He was under pressure from hard-line elements within his Christian militia to accept the resignation and appoint a more pliable Sunni Muslim figure. But Gemayel knew that no credible Sunni politician would step forward to take Karami's job in the prevailing deadlocked situation. At the time of Karami's death, Gemayel had neither accepted nor rejected the premier's resignation.
While finding a willing candidate may not be impossible once the political deadlock is partially broken, there is no Sunni politician of Karami's stature left. He had held the premiership 10 times since 1955, often during the most turbulent periods in Lebanon's recent history.
A staunch Lebanese nationalist and a dogged champion of the Sunni community's interests, Karami was also a dependable ally of the Syrians. Outraged at the damage done to Sunni property and to the general state of security in west Beirut by violent street battles between supposedly allied Druze and Shiite Muslim militias, Karami took the lead in February in inviting Syrian troops to move in and restore order. Analysts say Syria will be eager to ensure that any successor will be as aware of its interests in Lebanon as Karami was. But under the law, Gemayel must appoint the new premier.
Karami's resignation had prompted efforts to overcome the political deadlock. But contacts between Gemayel and Damascus proved fruitless. It is now thought that his sudden demise will spur efforts to reach a political understanding between the Christians, Muslims, and Syrians. Gemayel faces the same problem, however: Anything acceptable to Syria is liable to be unacceptable to the powerful Christian militia.