Car Bombing Kills Army General in Increasingly Tense Lebanon
Thursday, December 13, 2007
BEIRUT, Dec. 12 -- A remote-controlled car bomb ripped through a busy street overlooking Beirut on Wednesday, killing a top general and his bodyguard and heightening the sense of instability in a country that has gone without a president for nearly three weeks.
The assassination of Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj was the first to target an army commander since Lebanon's crisis began last year and marked yet another line transgressed in a confrontation that has already paralyzed the cabinet, parliament and presidency. To many, the army stands as the last viable national institution, and the attack sent a chill through a country growing ever more discouraged with an enduring crisis between a U.S.-backed government and an opposition led by Hezbollah, which draws support from Syria and Iran.
"The army is our last hope. If they can strike a blow at the army, then we are a people without hope," said Nazih Rafael, as he swept up shattered glass near the attack site in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. "If they can hit the army, that's the last thing. That means they can knock on any door of any house in the country."
Asked about the culprit, shop owner Rafael shrugged his shoulders, a gesture conveying the anonymity of those behind the assassinations that have become part of the country's political calculus. Government supporters blamed Syria, as they have in bombings that targeted eight prominent opponents of Syria in the past two years. Syria denied any role and suggested that Israel or its allies had a hand in the attack.
Government opponents, led by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, denounced the attack, calling Hajj's death "a great national loss." One of their Christian allies, former general Michel Aoun, said Hajj had been his candidate to assume leadership of the army if parliament elected the present commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, as president. While government opponents and supporters have agreed in principle on Suleiman succeeding former president Emile Lahoud, who stepped down Nov. 23 at the end of his term, negotiations have stalled over a comprehensive deal to resolve the crisis, the country's worst since the 1975-90 civil war.
The eventual settlement will be read in Lebanon and abroad as a victory for one side or the other, and have implications for the influence here of either the United States or Iran and Syria, the role of Hezbollah, the relative power of the country's Sunni or Shiite communities, and the posture toward Israel.
Unlike past assassination victims, Hajj, 55, had no public political profile, a reflection in part of the army's largely successful attempt to stay neutral in the conflict. But the political orientation of the army remains a point of contention in the ongoing political confrontation. Historically, its upper echelons have been viewed as friendly, even cooperative, with Hezbollah, particularly during the 1990s.
Hajj, a Maronite Catholic, was perhaps best known as director of operations in the army's costly battle with an armed Islamic group that dragged on for nearly four months this summer in northern Lebanon. His candidacy to become commander of the army, a post traditionally held by a member of the Maronite community, was no less sensitive, given the profile of that position. Suleiman would be the third commander of the army to assume the presidency since Lebanon's independence in 1943.
Responsibility "is going to stay in the realm of speculation because that's the way it is here," said Karim Makdisi, a professor of international relations at the American University of Beirut. "But the timing of it means there's a likelihood that it's connected to the current crisis. There's definitely been a deterioration in terms of the rhetoric."
The bomb, estimated at 75 pounds and hidden in a BMW, detonated after 7 a.m. as Hajj and his bodyguard left his home. The blast shattered windows hundreds of yards away and sprayed charred pieces of vehicles across the street. Bystanders stared at broken glass in the street as it caught the morning sun. Streaks of black scarred the white balconies overlooking the blast site. Sounds like chimes filled the air, as shop owners and residents swept away the detritus.
"We've become like a people imprisoned," said George Khoury, as he stood near a line of yellow tape that cordoned off the bomb site. "People have become cheap in Lebanon. The state is supposed to protect the people, but there's no state in Lebanon."