washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > Near East > Lebanon

Lebanese Warn Of Parallels to 1970s Volatility

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page A01

BEIRUT, Feb. 15 -- A day after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, senior Lebanese officials warned that the country was entering a volatile period similar to the year preceding Lebanon's long civil war. They urged calm among angry opposition leaders and thousands of citizens who hold the government responsible for Hariri's death.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher announced that Margaret Scobey, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, was being recalled for consultations. Boucher said the move reflected the Bush administration's "profound outrage" over Hariri's assassination but added that the United States still did not know who carried it out.

A destroyed facade, a large crater and debris mark the site of the bomb blast on Monday in Beirut that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 13 others. (Hussein Malla -- AP)

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Nora Boustany on the political situation in Lebanon.
_____From Beirut_____
Photo Gallery: Thousands marched through Beirut to mourn the loss of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Video: Hariri's funeral becomes an anti-Syria rally in the streets of Beirut.
Video: Scene from downtown Beirut immediately following the blast.

The decision underscored rising tensions between the United States and Syria, which maintains 15,000 troops in Lebanon and whose government many Lebanese opposition leaders blame for Hariri's killing. Hariri, 60, a self-made billionaire who entered Lebanon's fractious political scene in the midst of its 15-year civil war, had emerged in recent weeks as an important opponent of Syria's influence in Lebanon.

The Lebanese government placed the army on high alert, with soldiers visible throughout the capital Tuesday on the first of three days of mourning. Shops and schools were closed. Beirut's empty avenues echoed with the wail of muezzins reading Koranic verses from minarets.

Hundreds of Lebanese filed through Hariri's downtown mansion to pay tearful respects to the former prime minister, who was killed with 13 others Monday when his motorcade was rocked by an enormous explosion as it traveled along Beirut's waterfront. In the southern city of Sidon, Hariri's home town, angry Lebanese men scuffled with a group of Syrian workers, the Associated Press reported.

Several cabinet ministers called for unity in the face of what one called an international campaign to destabilize Lebanon. "We're now in 1975," Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh told reporters, referring to the year the civil war began. "All we are missing is someone to start the shooting."

Hariri resigned as prime minister in October over a move by parliament the previous month to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, who was Syria's handpicked choice for the position. But only recently had Hariri begun identifying himself with the opposition bloc now demanding Syria's complete withdrawal from Lebanon.

Parliamentary elections, scheduled for this spring, could usher in a government more opposed to Syria's presence. Hariri was believed to have been planning another bid to be prime minister, backed by rival sectarian parties that have united against Syria. Lebanese officials said Tuesday that the elections would proceed as scheduled.

Because of the severity of the crime -- the most serious political assassination in Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990 -- opposition leaders and officials from France, which administered Lebanon after World War I, have called for an international investigation. Syrian intelligence agents, working with allies in the Lebanese security services, have been suspected of past political attacks, including a bombing that seriously wounded a former cabinet minister soon after he resigned in protest over Lahoud's term extension.

But Lebanese officials on Tuesday effectively ruled out an international inquiry, calling the issue a matter of national sovereignty.

So far, officials said, the Lebanese investigation indicates that the explosion, which sheared off the facades of several buildings and shattered glass within a quarter-mile radius, was likely the result of a suicide car bomb that rammed Hariri's motorcade. Hariri traveled in a convoy equipped with electronic jamming devices designed to thwart remotely detonated bombs; Lebanese knew that he was in their neighborhood when their cell phone service went dead.

Franjieh said DNA testing was being conducted on some of the remains pulled from the wreckage, which army and police trucks began clearing Tuesday from the busy curve on Beirut's Corniche, or coastal drive.

Officials also said authorities were reviewing a videotape broadcast on al-Jazeera satellite television that showed a Palestinian asserting responsibility for the bombing. Government troops on Monday raided the Beirut home of the man, Ahmed Tayseer Abu Adas, who claimed to belong to the previously unknown "Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant," and seized computer equipment and tapes. Abu Adas, who said he had killed Hariri for his financial dealings with the Saudi royal family, was not at home.

Officials also responded angrily to opposition claims that Lebanese authorities were responsible for Hariri's death, which several officials called a national tragedy. They suggested that whatever entity carried out the attack was seeking to cause political friction in Lebanon for its own gain -- a formulation commonly used in the region to imply involvement by Israel or, more recently, the United States.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company