Bomb strains Syria-Lebanon ties

A former leader who quietly pressed for Syria to quit Lebanon was killed Monday.

Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman and former Lebanese prime minister who helped rebuild Beirut from its civil war, was killed Monday in a massive car bomb explosion in the city's downtown district.

The blast was a grim reminder of the dark days of Lebanon's civil war when rival groups and factions routinely targeted each other with car bombs.

In recent years, Lebanon has enjoyed relative peace under the imposed order of the Syrian military - an occupation force that is causing increasing local opposition, which was quietly supported by Mr. Hariri. There is no shortage of potential culprits and motives for Monday's assassination. But analysts say that no matter who was actually behind it, Syria will inevitably be blamed and the Lebanese opposition emboldened.

"Every way you look at this, it's going to be a major blowback on the Syrians," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst. "Nobody is going to look anywhere else with any seriousness."

An initial claim of responsibility came from a previously unknown group calling itself Jihad and Victory in Greater Syria. A statement said the attack was a suicide bombing and described Mr. Hariri as a "collaborator."

The Lebanese opposition announced it would hold an emergency meeting in the evening at Hariri's house.

Damascus condemned the bombing as an "act of terrorism," while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent his condolences to the Hariri family.

"Hariri was the most visible, most influential Lebanese figure around the world," says Farid Khazen, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "It's the first major peacetime political assassination. This is as far as you can go when you target someone of Hariri's stature. This has broken taboos."

Helped rebuild nation

Hariri was prime minister for 10 of the 15 years since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war and was the driving force behind the massive multibillion dollar reconstruction program here. His last term in office, which ended with his resignation in October, was marred by a cold relationship with the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud.

Hariri was regarded as a powerful, if de facto, member of the increasingly robust Lebanese opposition which is pressing Syria to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon and cease interfering in the Lebanese political process.

Kept options open

The billionaire businessman and close personal friend of French President Jacques Chiracnever formally announced he was siding with the opposition. Analysts say that Hariri preferred to keep his options open, especially given his vast financial stake in Lebanon that could have been at risk if he was too vocal in his support for the opposition.

Killing someone of Hariri's stature crosses all red lines, analysts say, and will redouble the resolve of the opposition.

"If there were elections tomorrow, Hariri's list would win in a landslide," Mr. Khazen says. "It will strengthen the opposition. There will be further consolidation."

But most analysts and diplomats say that Lebanon is headed toward a period of dangerous uncertainty.

"This is going to destabilize the country significantly for a long time to come," says a European diplomat here.

An indication of that potential instability soon followed the deadly bomb attack. In Hariri's hometown of Sidon in south Lebanon, hundreds of people began chanting anti-Syrian slogans while demonstrating in support of the slain politician.

May elections a test

In September, the United Nations Security Council adopted the US- and French-sponsored Resolution 1559 which calls on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and cease meddling in the affairs of its smaller neighbor.

The resolution was spurred by the surprise decision by Damascus to grant President Lahoud a three-year extension to his six-year mandate which was due to end in November.

Emboldened by the support of the UN, the Lebanese opposition have forged new alliances across the sectarian divide, bringing together traditional foes, the Maronites and the Druze.

Lebanon holds parliamentary elections in May, an event which is seen as a litmus test of Syria's support in the country. The UN has dispatched an envoy to Lebanon to assess the implementation of Resolution 1559 and observe the electoral process.

In October, Marwan Hamade, a former minister and close ally of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, narrowly escaped being killed by a bomb planted on the side of a Beirut street. That attack was seen as a point of no return in the confrontation between Lebanon's pro-Syrian establishment and the opposition.

'A huge bang'

Monday's bomb attack occurred at 1 p.m. on the seafront corniche in the heart of the hotel district which Hariri helped rebuild during the1990s. A smoking crater 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide marked the site of the blast outside the gutted remains of the famous St. George hotel. At least 20 vehicles were caught in the explosion.

Heavily armed soldiers kept a stunned crowd of several hundred people away from the scene. The bomb exploded as Hariri's mortorcade passed by, killing him and nine other people.

Hariri's body was taken to the American University Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Some 100 people were injured in the blast, mainly from flying glass.

A black BMW, one of the vehicles in Hariri's motorcade, lay smashed in the center of the road, the trunk open displaying a sophisticated radio set. On the back seat was a chipped CD, "The Last Meal," by Snoop Dogg.

"There was a huge bang and then I could hear nothing for several minutes," says a shaken Rula Sfeir wiping a trickle of blood from her face.

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