The political crisis here deepened Wednesday when a senior Army general was killed in a powerful car bombing, the ninth high-profile attack on a prominent Lebanese in a sporadic campaign of assassinations over the past three years.
Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj was the first senior security official to be killed, causing widespread shock that the highly respected Army would face such an attack.
"This is very unusual. It's the first time in 30 years that the Army has been targeted in this way," says a senior Lebanese Army general and friend of General Hajj, who spoke anonymously in accordance with military regulations.
Hajj, the director of military operations, died instantly along with four other soldiers when the bomb, estimated at 77 pounds and packed inside a parked BMW, exploded as he drove by in the plush Baabda residential district in Beirut's eastern suburbs near the presidential palace.
The bombing "is a message to the Lebanese that the situation in Lebanon will remain fragile and that security will remain a target," said Ghazi Aridi, Lebanon's minister of information.
Hajj's death came two days after a parliamentary session to elect a new president was postponed until Dec. 17, the eighth time Lebanese lawmakers failed to elect a new head of state. Lebanon has been without a president since Nov. 23.
Gen. Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Army, has been picked as a consensus candidate for the presidency, but his election has become bogged down in a constitutional dispute between pro- and anti-Syrian factions over the process of electing the Army commander as head of state.
The impasse has spurred predictions that an election will not be held at least until the new year and possibly as late as March when the next regular session of Parliament begins.
The already scant hope that a breakthrough on the presidency would occur before the next scheduled vote has been dealt a blow by Hajj's assassination and is likely to further polarize the stances of the anti-Syrian March 14 bloc, which forms a slim parliamentary majority, and the pro-Syrian opposition.
White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "We strongly condemn the assassination" and promised that President Bush "will continue to stand with the Lebanese people as they counter those who attempt to undermine their security and freedom."
The Lebanese Army, which the Lebanese look to for a guarantee of national unity and security, earned huge respect and praise during the three-month battle with Al Qaeda-inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam in the northern Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared this summer. More than 160 soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Although Fatah al-Islam was crushed in the end, some militants escaped and are believed to be still in Lebanon, raising the possibility that Hajj's death was a revenge attack. As chief of operations, Hajj played a key role in the confrontation against the militants.
"My gut feeling is that this is to do with the past, not the present. It could be revenge. Hajj was not a controversial figure," says Timur Goksel, a Middle East security consultant and analyst based in Beirut.
Hajj was tapped as a potential replacement for General Suleiman if the latter is elected president. That has led to speculation that the bombing was a message to Suleiman and the Army.
"My first reaction is that this is linked to Nahr al-Bared, that it is a revenge attack," said Boutros Harb, a member of the March 14 bloc and a former presidential aspirant. "But I am not sure that this is not also a message to the Army in order to destabilize it and remove the halo around it at a time when the commander in chief has been tipped to become the president."
The March 14 bloc was swift to blame Syria for the assassination.
Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamade told the Associated Press that "the Syrian-Iranian axis" had deliberately hit the Army, which he called "the only body in Lebanon who can balance the power of Hizbullah and other militias in the country," a reference to the powerful Shiite group.
An unidentified Syrian official blamed Hajj's death on Israel and "its tools in Lebanon."