Lebanon Violence Is Viewed As Omen

Palestinians continue to flee the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, where fighting broke out Sunday. (By Hussein Malla -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 25, 2007

BEIRUT -- For 38-year-old businesswoman Susan Hakim, the concussive slap and roar of the bomb exploding beneath her windows in Beirut's luxury shopping district came with the predictability of an item scrawled in her datebook.

In the timeline of past and prospective political violence that many Lebanese carry around in their heads, this month had already looked like a bad one.

"We'll live like this" for the rest of the month, Hakim said this week, standing behind a yellow police line to survey the damage from a bomb that exploded in West Beirut's Verdun district, spraying glass shards onto racks of Armani and crumpling female mannequins in heaps.

"No going out at night this month," said her cousin, Bassima al-Hakim, 45, outlining the rules the women had laid out for their families in anticipation of the U.N. Security Council's consideration as early as next week of a tribunal to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005.

"No public places, no malls," Susan Hakim added.

Intense fighting broke out Sunday between the military and an armed Islamic group in northern Lebanon. Bombs hit Verdun and another popular shopping area Sunday and Monday nights, killing one person and injuring more than a dozen. Another bomb struck a mountain resort area outside the capital Wednesday, wounding at least seven.

Many government officials and residents see one prime mover in the assassination, the fighting in the north and the bombs: Syria, Lebanon's larger, historically oppressive neighbor.

Hariri's assassination in a bombing brought international condemnation and massive public demonstrations in Lebanon that forced Syria to end its nearly 30-year military presence here.

Preliminary U.N. investigations linked Syrian officials to the killing, which Syria denies. Ever since, many Lebanese have tied violence in their country to the push for accountability in Hariri's death. Syria opposes a U.N. tribunal.

"A lot of it is conjecture, but the timing is kind of suggestive," Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said of the events this week and the accusations that ensued.

"It's worrisome that in pretty much 48 hours, we went to basically a war and two bombs," Salem said in a telephone interview in Beirut, before Wednesday's blast.

"This is all about Hariri's murder," said Susan Hakim, part of a crowd of shop owners and residents in designer sunglasses, low-slung jeans and snug black T-shirts studying the blown-out shop windows and shriveled wrecks of cars.

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