Reaction to Assassination Shows Rifts in Beirut

Lebanese mourn the death of Gebran Tueni, pictured, a journalist, lawmaker and vocal critic of Syria who was killed Monday in a car bombing.
Lebanese mourn the death of Gebran Tueni, pictured, a journalist, lawmaker and vocal critic of Syria who was killed Monday in a car bombing. (By Hussein Malla -- Associated Press)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

BEIRUT, Dec. 13 -- In the tony parts of Christian east Beirut, shops and restaurants shuttered their doors Tuesday to mourn the death of Gebran Tueni, a journalist, lawmaker and opponent of Syria assassinated Monday when a car bomb hurled his armored sport-utility vehicle over a hillside.

In the Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Ghabairi, however, it was business as usual: Mechanics hammered dents out of cars, vegetable carts plied shoddy streets and traffic crawled beneath a religious banner.

Lebanon, long a battleground for other people's conflicts, greeted Tueni's death in ways that illustrated what many see as the growing sectarian divide in the country's politics.

Across the spectrum, virtually everyone condemned Tueni's assassination, the latest in a string of attacks that have killed and wounded some of Lebanon's most prominent opponents of Syria. But more telling were the differences in who they held responsible and how they thought the government should respond.

Many politicians were quick to blame Syria, but the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah warned against hasty accusations. Within hours, calls for an international investigation of the assassination triggered a crisis that may prove the greatest challenge yet for the five-month-old government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

After a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated in February, reaction to a U.N. investigation and report broke down along largely sectarian lines. Many Shiites were suspicious, while others from the Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze communities were convinced of a Syrian role even before the investigation began.

"The suspicions between all the factions are very high," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist at al-Nahar, the Lebanese newspaper that Tueni ran. "And we should not forget that Lebanon is still Lebanon, which is not so sovereign, not so independent and a place where foreign interference in its policies is still going on . . . by brothers, friends and enemies."

On Monday, the government, seeking international support, asked the U.N. Security Council to expand its investigation into the assassination of Hariri to include the killing of Tueni and other Lebanese figures over the past 14 months. The government also voted to seek a trial with an "international character" to try suspects in Hariri's assassination.

Wary of foreign interference and allied with Syria, five Shiite ministers walked out of a cabinet meeting before the vote on the appeal to the United Nations. They suspended their membership and said they would await a decision by leaders of Hezbollah and another Shiite party, Amal, to decide whether to resign. Their departure left the cabinet without the representation of Shiites, who make up Lebanon's largest group.

"In security matters, there are calls for international investigators. In the judiciary, there are calls for an international tribunal. And in the economy, we face similar pressure," Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah member, told the group's al-Manar television.

"What's next?" Fneish asked.

Lebanon is often seen as the most secular and Western of Arab countries. But sectarian politics are notoriously fractious in the tiny country. The divergence in opinion over politics is sharp, and stability depends on a precarious balance among 18 religious sects. There are memories of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

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