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Murder in Beirut

Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page A18

WHO ENGINEERED the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on Monday may never be known. But these facts are clear enough: Mr. Hariri, a self-made billionaire who orchestrated Lebanon's reconstruction in the 1990s after years of civil war, had emerged as a leading opponent of Syria's continued domination of his country. His killing was carried out by professionals capable of assembling and detonating a bomb that wiped out an armored motorcade and devastated nearby buildings, killing 13 others and injuring 120. And the Syrian government, which has defied a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the withdrawal of its 15,000 troops in Lebanon, maintains a jealous guard over the most minute aspects of its neighbor's security and political life. The despicable murder of Mr. Hariri benefits no one outside the rogue regime in Damascus -- and the world should respond accordingly.

The crudeness of the killing and the denials by the government of Bashar Assad will cause some to wonder whether it has been framed for a crime it may have desired but did not commit. Yet crudeness has been a trademark of this callow dictator since he took over from his father in 2000. Mr. Assad once welcomed Pope John Paul II to Damascus by proclaiming that Jews "tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ." He has brazenly harbored leaders of the Iraqi insurgency in his capital, along with the Palestinian terrorists who habitually reside there. Last August he exhibited no subtlety in forcing the Lebanese parliament to extend the term of the pro-Syrian president, in violation of Lebanon's constitution. That prompted the passage in September of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon. Syria continues to flout that order.

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Like other Arab dictators, Mr. Assad has growing reason to fear for his future. The successful elections in neighboring Iraq and in the Palestinian territories -- which Syria's agents tried and failed to disrupt -- have so stirred the region that demands for change are starting to be heard even in his police state. In Lebanon, expectations were rapidly rising for the parliamentary elections scheduled for spring; opposition parties had united in an effort to loosen Syria's control over the legislature. If the assassination of Mr. Hariri -- the most plausible leader of a truly independent Lebanon -- looks like the panicked act of a cornered tyrant, the shoe snugly fits Mr. Assad.

The Bush administration has rightly responded assertively to this act of terrorism. Yesterday the State Department announced the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador from Syria; at the United Nations, the United States and France jointly sponsored a Security Council statement asking Secretary General Kofi Annan to investigate the bombing. Such a probe, like those of many previous Lebanese political killings, may lead nowhere, so the Bush administration should meanwhile work with France to raise the pressure on Syria to comply with Resolution 1559. The United States has already applied most of the sanctions it can to Syria; now Europe, Russia, Turkey and other states should be pressed to isolate this regime.

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