From his first year as Lebanon's prime minister, Rafiq Hariri knew he was a hunted man.

One day in 1993, about 10 months into his tenure, I went to interview Hariri at his art deco villa. As we talked, I noticed that he was barely listening to my questions. His face ashen and glistening with beads of sweat, he led me to a square garden behind the house to chat privately. But even then, as we strolled and conversed, he kept looking nervously over his shoulder.

He was just back from Damascus, where he and Lebanon's president and speaker of the parliament had been dressed down by Hafez Assad, Syria's president then, as though they were office boys who had spilled the coffee. The reason: The Lebanese leaders had sent their army into towns just north of Israel to disarm the Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah, which Assad felt was a useful tool of Syrian policy.

And while the Lebanese leaders had quickly pulled the army back, Hariri had good reason to be worried. That week, I learned later, two car bombs had been found along the road between his home in Koreitem near the sea and his office at the Serail near the center of Beirut.

For 20 years, Hariri had trod softly through the minefield of Lebanese politics, making deals at home while placating the Syrian overlords who treat Lebanon like a colony. But when he stopped doing business as usual, it all caught up to him. Whether the much-feared Syrians planted the bomb that killed the ex-prime minister and 13 other people last Monday or whether some other group carried out the attack will probably never be known. But it almost doesn't matter. What matters is this: Hariri -- businessman, philanthropist, twice prime minister and most recently potential opposition leader -- represented the cosmopolitan face of an increasingly normal, independent-minded and democratic Lebanon. And someone somewhere decided to prove that Lebanon is still a dysfunctional, subjugated nation and to show President Bush that he cannot impose his idea of democracy on the Middle East.

That's why it is difficult for the world to write off Hariri's assassination as just another episode in Lebanon's fratricidal history. The bloody message of Hariri's death is not aimed solely at Lebanon's outspoken democrats, whose membership now spills across religious boundaries and who had been gathering strength from Hariri's new role as an outsider. The murder was intended to show that powerful people and interests are ready to push back against democratic forces, whether they come from lines of Iraqi voters braving terrorists, participants in Saudi Arabia's municipal elections, Palestinians who cast ballots in the West Bank and Gaza, dissidents in Egypt or Syria, or democratic crusaders in the White House.

At least such is the calculation of Hariri's killers.

I first met Hariri in 1983. It was an eerily quiet afternoon during the eighth year of Lebanon's civil war, and the delicious breeze felt like a breath of divine forgiveness, offering time out for a frivolous chat with a benevolent billionaire.

Hariri, then just a businessman, was paying out of his own pocket to have palm trees planted and new lighting installed along Beirut's seaside Corniche after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. His name had surfaced in a conversation because he was also building a vocational school near his hometown and sponsoring more than 30,000 Lebanese university students abroad.

To a war-hardened Lebanese reporter like me, it was like meeting Santa Claus. He was waiting for me on a sofa in a modest sitting room. Dressed in sporty attire, he was fondling worry beads. He had thick, bushy black eyebrows and an easy smile. And he made you want to believe in his fantasy.

His dream was to turn Beirut into a vibrant metropolis again. At a time when street battles raged and aerial bombs and artillery barrages were slamming into high-rises and changing the city's skyline, this bordered on hallucination. He talked about fancy new hotels, conference halls, arched garden spots and sports stadiums.

He told me his life story. Born in Sidon, an ancient port, Hariri grew up poor. As a boy, he picked lemons and oranges to help his family. At university in Beirut, he trained to be a math teacher, but was lured by a newspaper ad to work in Saudi Arabia. Soon he became a construction contractor, profiting from the oil boom. After winning a bid to build a royal guest palace for half the price of other international firms and then finishing it in record time, he became the favored contractor of the House of Saud, which had wearied of greedy outsiders.

By the time I met him, he had amassed a fortune of $4 billion, yet it ate at him that he was able to build glitzy shopping and office towers in Riyadh while Beirut's midtown lay like a gaping wound, with heaps of peeling masonry and twisted metal beams rusting in the sun.

I once asked him how he wanted to go down in history. "I want to be the man who reconstructed Lebanon," he said. "I want my grandchild to walk around one day and say 'my grandfather did this.' "

He was no saint. His ambitious project to resurrect Beirut at the expense of small landowners while benefiting his own construction interests aroused controversy. And many people resented his habit of co-opting critics and buying loyalty.

When he came to political power in 1992, two elected Lebanese presidents had been assassinated, Bashir Gemayel in 1982 and Rene Moawad in 1989. Leaders who dared to cross Damascus appeared to run unusual risks; Prime Minister Rashid Karami, Druze Chieftain Kamal Jumblatt, the Grand Mufti of the Republic and many others were assassinated as well.

Hariri survived his stints as prime minister, 10 years in all, precisely because he was willing to accommodate Syria and its meddling in Lebanon's security issues, an approach many Lebanese disliked.

Once an American reporter, Ethan Bronner, asked why the avenues from the airport were plastered with pictures of Hafez Assad. Hariri responded: "It is very easy to put them up. It is not so easy to bring them down." His aides laughed, but it was an apt description of Lebanon's predicament. Inviting Syrian troops in at the start of the war was simple, but asking them to leave was life-threatening, if not impossible.

I had many conversations with Hariri during those years. Sometimes he was charming; other times he was taciturn or intolerant of questions he did not like.

In the mid-'90s, he introduced a law barring journalists from criticizing "Lebanese allies," a reference not only to Syria but to Saudi Arabia, which he hoped would help foot postwar reconstruction costs. Hearing about my displeasure, he had an aide summon me to a meeting. It turned out to be a sumptuous lunch attended by a dozen people -- ministers, yes-men and others. Our discussion deteriorated into a shouting match as I told him he had no right to take away the last thing the war had not managed to kill in Lebanon, a free and lively media.

"I breathe a different air when I cross the overland border from Syria, only because I look forward to reading Lebanese papers," I remember saying. "In every other Arab capital I have visited, newspapers are a waste of time." Always careful about Syria, which he often referred to as "the sister," he politely alerted me to the presence of a Syrian radio journalist, then dangled the prospect of hiring me to run a TV station he was planning to launch. "I am not for sale," I shot back.

The dieting Hariri told me I was upsetting him so much that he was "going to devour the whole dining room table," groaning with platters of food. But when he saw me out, he whispered: "I like it when you are frank with me. Keep doing it, nobody around me dares."

Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once told me that the country was like a tiny fish piloting the big whale below the surface of the sea. He meant that the politics of Lebanon would steer the course of the entire Middle East.

Back in the early 1970s, when Beirut was an international financial and trading center, that statement was a hopeful one for the region. But for a long time, it has been true in the worst possible way. Years of sectarian violence have been followed by years of domination by the father-son Syrian autocrats. And those two periods have seemed to sum up the experiences of other countries in the Middle East.

Lately, Lebanon has portended new things. A wind of change has been blowing into the country from Iraq, Turkey, Palestine and even the deserts of Saudi Arabia -- all places where elections have been held. It's somewhat surprising that the cautious, pragmatic Hariri was touched by that wind, but he was.

Hariri may have been emboldened last October when the Syrians decided to ignore Lebanon's constitution and hand the country's president, Emile Lahoud, a second six-year term despite widespread opposition at home and abroad. Afterward, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution asking Syria to leave Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar Assad told Hariri about the move in a meeting that lasted no longer than 10 minutes, according to Lebanese journalist Rosana Bou Monsef. Hariri opposed the extension for Lahoud, but Assad never asked his opinion, she wrote in The Daily Star.

So Hariri stepped down as prime minister and joined the movement opposed to government by Syrian diktat. Even as he tried to moderate the opposition parties, he lent them new credibility. He helped win passage for a new electoral law in advance of legislative elections scheduled for May. He and other members of Lebanon's opposition hoped that by gaining seats through a legitimate popular vote, they could dilute Syria's influence.

Syria no doubt saw Hariri as a greater threat than ever. Hariri told Monsef that he expected activists from one of his charities to be arrested on charges that their activities were part of his electoral campaign. Hariri believed that this was a direct response to leaving three deputies close to Syria off his parliamentary list.

In addition to his domestic stature, Hariri's wealth gave him far-flung contacts. He had a personal relationship with French President Jacques Chirac, who two days before the assassination had urged Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. And an aide to Hariri had visited Washington recently to see U.S. officials.

So what better way to send a message to Washington, Paris and Lebanon's opposition than by assassinating the country's most credible reform figure? His defection to the opposition threatened to dislodge a sizable chunk of the political establishment, clients of Syria's old guard as well as Lebanon's Syrian-allied security apparatus.

These groups are, in turn, representative of an even longer list of obstructionists -- including diehard Wahabis, zealots inspired by al Qaeda, the losers from a new order in Iraq, the apparatchiks of President Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt, and the mullahs in Iran. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (son of Kamal) told a newspaper that Hariri had told him two weeks ago, " 'They will hunt me down or hunt you.' " Jumblatt added, "So they got him."

"He did not have to die a martyr for the gates of history to fling open. He reserved his seat there early," Al Hayat columnist Ghassan Charbel wrote. "His killers erred. He was extracted from the daily chronicles of his homeland, but he is pinned to its chest like a medal."

Hariri was buried on Wednesday at Martyrs Square, in the heart of the city he rebuilt, as hundreds of thousands mourned to the sound of chants from the minarets and the tolling of church bells.

Author's e-mail: boustanyn@washpost.com

Nora Boustany, who is originally from Beirut, covered Lebanon for the Post from 1979 to 1995 and won a George Polk Award for her coverage in 1987. She now writes the paper's Diplomatic Dispatches column in Washington.

Who's boss? As Lebanon's prime minister in 1996, Rafiq Hariri, left, consulted with Syria's leader, Hafez Assad.