Peace explodes

For 15 years, a fragile peace has held sway over the different religious and political factions in Beirut. At 1.46pm on St. Valentine’s day, Monday February 14, 2005, it was shattered by a 300kg bomb. Anil Bhoyrul examines the fall out from the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and looks back at his extraordinary life.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  February 20, 2005

Peace explodes|~|DAMAGE-200.jpg|~|DAMAGE: The bomb which killed Hariri left a 30-foot crater at its epicentre.|~|IT WAS LUNCHTIME ON SUNDAY 13 February when three Lebanese armoured vehicles unexpectedly drove through Beirut’s popular Corniche district. The sight of tanks on the streets brought back uncanny memories of Beirut in 1990. For some days there had been a feeling throughout the city that something was not right. When, later that morning, a group a residents walked past the St. George Hotel carrying stocks of water as if preparing for a siege of the city, rumours quickly spread that the Beirut was again on the brink of crisis. That crisis came in spectacular style at exactly 1.46pm local time the following day, when a 300kg bomb went off in the centre of Beirut. In a flash, it turned the motorcade of former prime minister Rafik Hariri into a trail of burning wrecks, shattering windows and balconies over a wide area, and leaving a 30-foot deep crater at its epicenter. By sunset, the final body count was 13. Among the dead was “Mr. Lebanon” himself, Rafik Hariri, six body guards and three close associates. But the real casualty may yet be the fragile peace that has prevailed in the city for 15 years. Much now depends on who was responsible for Hariri’s murder. The Lebanese and Syrian authorities have launched an investigation, which is likely to take several weeks. But the list of suspects already runs far and wide. Hariri had collected as many enemies as lucrative construction contracts in recent years. Having resigned from the government last year, he joined opposition calls for the removal of 17,000 Syrian troops that have been based in Lebanon for the past decade. His anti-Syrian agenda, coupled with powerful contacts within the West and other Arab nations, made him a serious threat to the regime in Damascus. Likewise, a range of terrorist groups based in Lebanon but with strong links to the Syrians, would also have benefited from Hariri’s removal. So too would the Israelis, who feared that Hariri’s aim to push Syria out of Lebanon would cause wider instability in the region, threatening Israel’s borders. Israel has accused Syria of being involved in the killing. Iranian officials suggest Israel was behind Hariri’s death. And in the immediate aftermath of the assignation, the previously unheard of Islamic group, Support and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon, claimed in a video broadcast on Al Jazeera television that it had carried out the bombing, saying it was a suicide operation. However, officials doubt that the group, with no previous record of bombings, could have planned an executed such a sophisticated operation. Mahmoud Ahmed, a Lebanese based security advisor, told Arabian Business: “Hariri always travels with two cars in front of him and two behind, and their exact movements are only decided upon minutes before their journey begins. It doesn’t take much to work out that this was a very carefully planned operation by someone who most probably had some inside knowledge.” Lebanon’s most prominent exile, former army commander General Michel Aoun, has wasted no time saying he suspects Syria was behind the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The Syrians “totally control the country,” Aoun said on France-Info radio. “Nothing moves without it being controlled by the Syrians.” He went on to ask for help from the UN “because the Syrians can repeat their crimes”. “Each time that we wanted to get the Syrians out, there was a series of attacks that targeted Lebanese people who opposed Syria,” Aoun said. Syria has denied the accusations, but it is not just Aoun pointing the finger at Damascus. The Bush administration, which has been particularly critical in recent weeks of the government in Damascus, said the bombing demonstrated the need for Syria to withdraw troops from its neighbour. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the United States would “consult with other governments in the region and on the [United Nations] Security Council today about measures that can be taken to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack, to end the use of violence and intimidation against the Lebanese people and to restore Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation.” McClellan said that although it was too early to know who was responsible for the bombing, “we continue to be concerned by the foreign occupation in Lebanon.” Gibran Tueni, a leading anti-Syrian opposition figure, said there was no doubt who was to blame. “Who is able to undertake such an operation?” he said. “We think Lebanon is completely under Syrian domination and therefore they’re responsible for the events here.” There had been growing concerns over Hariri’s personal security after he had backed the UN Security Council resolution 1559, passed in September 2004, which called on Syria to pull out its troops before May, and for Lebanon to disband militias. But most experts believe it would be wrong to blame Syria without hard evidence. The Syrian president was among the first to condemn the attack, and in theory, has as much to lose as gain from Hariri’s death. The attacks have already prompted international calls for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and any slide into civil war would only hasten foreign demands for the Syrians to leave Beirut. In any case, in recent weeks weeks, the US, France and the UN became more confident that they might be able to nudge Lebanon and Syria towards change. The new, tough stand by the US and France, jointly sponsoring Resolution 1559, appeared to be making a real impact on Beirut and Damascus. Given Lebanon’s catastrophic financial position, in particular the US$35 billion of debt it is saddled with, politicians in both Damascus and Beirut were not surprisingly alarmed at the thought of UN sanctions. By last Wednesday, the US had withdrawn its ambassador to Syria and speculation was mounting in Washington that American special forces may enter Syria, officially in pursuit of Iraqi insurgents. Ironically, in the past two weeks a busy round of diplomacy appeared to bring results. The UN special envoy reported back to Paris that Syria agreed to begin withdrawal - although it said it would not completely pull out until Israel complied with UN resolutions, a linkage France and the UN reject. A spokesman for Syrian President Assad said: “We totally reject the accusation that the Syrian government was in any way behind this crime of terror. We will work to bring the perpertrators to justice.” He added: “Syria has been working with the international community to find a peaceful solution to the current problems not just here but across the Middle East, and will continue to do so.” What is clear is that, despite its fashionable limestone buildings, trendy shops and restaurants, trouble has been brewing for some time in Beirut. Beneath a polished surface, the country is still veined with bitter sectarian divides among Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians. In recent months, clashes have escalated between Syrian loyalists and an increasingly vocal opposition calling for Damascus to withdraw troops. Syria sent troops into Lebanon in 1976 to help quell sectarian fighting but refused to relinquish control of its smaller neighbour even after the civil war ended. September’s UN resolution essentially calling for Syria to pull out of Lebanon — a measure spearheaded by France and the United States — turned international attention to a quiet occupation that had been ignored for years. Instead of backing down in the face of the UN demands, Damascus hardened its resolve. Syrian officials routinely exalt the “brotherly” relationship between the two countries, and insist both Lebanon’s government and its people want Syrian soldiers to stay and keep the peace. When Syria pressured Lebanese lawmakers into amending the constitution last fall to extend President Lahoud’s term, the change was too much for Hariri. First he protested, but then he gave in briefly to Syrian demands. In the end, he resigned his post. Lahoud and Hariri were longtime foes. But last Monday, just hours after the assassination, Lahoud called the it “a dark point in our national history”, and pledged to bring the killers to justice. Even before the assassination, many Lebanese were nervous about the approach of this spring’s parliamentary elections, which will be the first true test of public sentiment since the UN resolution was passed. “The further we move toward the elections, the further such problems there will be in Lebanon,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “I think there will be an escalation. Certainly in the last few weeks there has been an escalation of rhetoric. And it exploded last Monday.” However, the fears of a return to civil war may be overstated: the Syrian troops, although seen by many as an occupying force, are sanctioned by the current, democratically elected Lebanese government. The real danger could come in if the Lebanese leadership changes in Spring after a new round of elections, and Damascus is given its marching orders. This week, the new US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice will brief President Bush on her recent visit to the Middle East, while Bush's chief of staff will present the findings of the US' own unofficial inquiry into the murder of Rafik Hariri. If it believes Syria was in some way involved, the ramifications could be severe. Once again, the world's eyes are glaring at the Middle East. Additional reporting: Tamara Walid To read the full feature, buy Arabian Business on sale from February 20, 2005 ||**||

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