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Lebanon Violence Is Viewed As Omen

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.

"Syria has said, 'You want the truth about who killed Hariri?' " Hakim said. " 'Okay -- we will burn Beirut. You choose.' "

"Khalas," said 26-year-old shop owner Souheir Sahily, using an Arabic expression meaning "It's finished."

Blonde with gold chains down to her navel, Sahily had opened a Swarovski crystal store in Verdun, a symbol of the avidity with which traditionally pleasure-minded Lebanese have sought the finer things in life after their 1975-90 civil war. Her crystal figurines of unicorns and teddy bears lay broken.

"I want to leave Lebanon," Sahily said. "There will never be a Lebanon."

Wealthy Arabs from the Persian Gulf who summer at Beirut's beaches, casinos and hotels each year began canceling reservations starting with the week's first bombing, ruining the summer tourist season.

"Lebanese people are the best," but "I have family," said Abdul al-Sharif, a Saudi government employee vacationing here. "I'm checking out today."

Beirut residents retreated indoors after each day of work and school this week, leaving normally raucous streets silent and empty.

White House spokesman Tony Snow charged Tuesday that Syria was trying, through the violence, to influence the Security Council's decision on a tribunal, as well as disrupt security in Lebanon.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem has denied that his country played any role. Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, also saw a pattern in the violence, just as Lebanese do, but suggested that the culprits were Lebanon or its allies.

"This is not a coincidence," the Syrian ambassador said. "Some people are trying to influence the Security Council and to make pressure on the council so they can go ahead with the adoption of the draft resolution on the tribunal."

Syria's critics point to such events as the shooting death of a cabinet minister, Pierre Gemayel, on Nov. 21, the same day the Security Council approved now-stalled plans for a Lebanese trial in Hariri's slaying.

On Feb. 13, bombs on buses killed three in a Christian village outside Beirut, as Saudi Arabia and Iran were reported to be working privately on a plan to resolve Lebanon's troubles, against Syria's wishes. The bus bombings heightened fears among Lebanese that the country was being pulled inexorably back into civil war.

Fatah al-Islam, the militant band behind this week's fighting in the north, is led by Shaker al-Abssi, who founded his group in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp late last year after serving a three-year prison sentence in Syria on terrorism charges. A Palestinian, Abssi has said his goal is to bring Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps into compliance with Islamic law and then challenge Israel.

"If you are a terrorist in Syria, you will be sentenced to death," retired Lebanese army Gen. Elias Hanna said in a telephone interview. "So how come this guy left Syria to come to Lebanon to create this mess?"

This week's violence has not happened in isolation. For months, smaller bombs have exploded or been discovered weekly, often daily, across Beirut, as the government struggles with a sometimes violent political stalemate with the Shiite Hezbollah movement.

Although hundreds of thousands of Lebanese shouted in public squares for Syria's withdrawal after Hariri's killing, some are returning now to the days when they hesitated to say the name of Lebanon's tougher neighbor in crowds.

"It's a message. A signal," said Tony Ezzi, owner of a women's clothing store in Verdun.

From whom? "You know," Ezzi said. "You know."

Correspondent Anthony Shadid in Yemen contributed to this report.

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