Fears of Civil Strife Rise in Lebanon
Christian Cabinet Member Pierre Gemayel, Killed by Gunmen, Was Critic of Syria
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2006; Page A01
BEIRUT, Nov. 21 -- One of Lebanon's most pronounced political crises in a generation slid into bloodshed Tuesday when assailants showered gunfire on a car carrying an anti-Syrian politician and scion of the country's most prominent Christian family, killing him and a bodyguard and pushing Lebanon a step closer to civil strife.The assassination of Pierre Gemayel, a divisive figure in a country riven by sectarian tension, underlined the lack of red lines in the escalating struggle over Lebanon's political future that has followed this summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel. The struggle is crucial not only to the often zero-sum calculations of Lebanese politics but also to the regional ambitions of the United States, Iran, Syria and Israel. "We will not allow assassins to control Lebanon's destiny and its people's future," Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said. The shots along a busy street that killed Gemayel, the industry minister, reverberated across Beirut as dusk fell. In the city's Shiite Muslim south, where Gemayel was among the most reviled of Christian politicians, occasional gunfire erupted in celebration and some residents expressed satisfaction at his death. Across town, in Christian East Beirut, his supporters set fires in protest along usually busy intersections, sending smoke eddying over emptied streets. At the hospital where he was taken, scores gathered in the lobby and parking lot. Some hurriedly spoke into phones. Their eyes red, women sobbed and men wailed with grief. "We want revenge!" a few shouted. "We want revenge!" "I have one wish," Gemayel's father, former president Amin Gemayel, told them after nightfall, "that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect this country. I call on all those who appreciate Pierre's martyrdom to preserve his cause and for all of us to remain in the service of Lebanon. We don't want reactions and revenge." As he left, the crowd shouted, "Amin, don't frown! If you want soldiers, we'll don their uniforms." Gemayel, a 34-year-old father of two and an up-and-coming politician, was killed when his car was ambushed by men from one or two cars that collided with it in the suburban neighborhood of Jdeideh. At least three gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons equipped with silencers, hitting him in the head and chest, officials said. Television footage showed the tinted driver's-side window pocked with at least eight shots and the glass on the passenger's side shattered. The silver sedan's hood was crumpled from the collision. Doctors said Gemayel was dead when he arrived at the hospital, and his bodyguard later succumbed to his wounds. Foreign leaders and officials across the Lebanese divide were unanimous in condemning the assassination. President Bush called for an international investigation to "identity those people and those forces behind the killing." Gemayel's allies were quick to put his killing in the context of a series of assassinations that followed the death of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in a car bombing in February 2005, a turning point in Lebanese politics that led to the departure of Syrian troops from the country. Gemayel's supporters blamed Syria for his death, as they did with Hariri's and the subsequent assassinations of three other anti-Syrian figures. Gemayel, though, was the first killed since Hariri to have an organized and fervent following. The Syrian government, in a statement carried by its news agency, denied any role in Gemayel's death, as it has in the previous killings. Lebanon has been locked in a cold war of sorts since Hariri's assassination and the protests that ensued over Syria's 29-year presence here. The largest demonstration, which took place in Beirut's Martyrs' Square on March 14, 2005, was organized by a coalition of Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian politicians who would take control of the government in parliamentary elections. The event built momentum for the Syrian withdrawal. Six days earlier, though, a pro-Syrian protest was convened by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement that fought Israel this July and August and remains the most powerful ally here of Iran and Syria. Since then, Lebanon has been symbolized by those two protests -- divided by sect, outlook, ideology and foreign policy. The simmering struggle flared this month when Hezbollah and its Christian ally, Michel Aoun, demanded greater representation in the cabinet. Four rounds of talks failed, and two Hezbollah ministers, three other Shiites and an allied politician resigned on Nov. 11, depriving the cabinet of its Shiite representation and the symbolic sectarian consensus on which Lebanese politics depends. Two days later, the depleted cabinet endorsed a U.N. proposal for an international tribunal to try suspects in Hariri's death, a step Syria has adamantly resisted. This weekend, in another escalation, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah insisted that the government resign or hold early parliamentary elections. Otherwise, he said, his followers would conduct days, even weeks of protests to bring the government down. Gemayel's killing was sure to recalculate the arithmetic of the crisis. Some speculated that, given the tension the killing has unleashed, Hezbollah might pause in its threats to begin protests as early as this week. Nasrallah has called sectarian strife unacceptable, and in a statement Tuesday night, Hezbollah warned of repercussions over the killing. "There is no doubt that those who carried out this crime want to push Lebanon into chaos, loss and civil war," it said. Since Nasrallah pressed his demand for a greater share of power in late October, Lebanese have been faced with what amounts to a long wait: sensing that something might happen, but not sure what or when. Last week, a hard-line Christian leader, Samir Geagea, predicted that assassinations might be ahead. Others warned that killing three ministers would deprive the cabinet of one-third of its members and, by law, force it to resign, as Hezbollah has demanded. Partisan television stations have railed at one another, streets are awash with politically loaded posters and emigration is the stuff of everyday conversation. But the turn to violence Tuesday seemed to scare leaders as much as it angered them. Walid Jumblatt, a Druze leader and one of Hezbollah's most outspoken foes, showed up at St. Joseph's Hospital, where Gemayel's body was taken. He spoke briefly to Gemayel's father, who served as president from 1982 to 1988, then turned to the crowd. "Beware," he said. "Let's not give the opportunity to the killers to lead us to civil strife." Lebanese television broadcast statement after statement appealing for calm from officials in both camps. Aoun, whose alliance with Hezbollah has deeply split the Christian community, appealed for restraint. "We call on all blocs to practice wisdom and to not fall into what the perpetrators seek," he said. Gemayel, a rising star in the right-wing Phalangist Party founded by his grandfather and namesake, was expected to carry the mantle of a family that ascended from humble beginnings to become one of the country's most prominent Christian clans. During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, the party fielded the largest Christian militia and was allied with Israel. His uncle, Bashir Gemayel, was elected president in 1982 but was assassinated days before he was to take office in an explosion many blamed on Syria. Pierre Gemayel was elected to parliament in 2000 and again in 2005, emerging as a pivotal player in the anti-Syrian coalition and winning a reputation as one of the most hard-line of Christian leaders. He was a vocal critic of Hezbollah and its ally, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Even today, many Shiites recall an interview Gemayel gave to a Christian-owned television station in spring 2005 in which he was dismissive of the Shiites' standing as Lebanon's largest group. "They threaten with quantity of people," he said. "We have the quality." As during the protests in March 2005, Beirut on Tuesday was of two minds over Gemayel's assassination. At the hospital, his supporters desperately called on cellphones before word of his death was announced. "Did you see the body?" one onlooker asked. Another approached an ally of Gemayel's and member of parliament, Elias Atallah, and asked, "Is he dead?" Atallah didn't answer. News quickly spread, unleashing grief. "Only two days ago I was hugging you," one man cried as he beat the wall. A woman standing outside shouted: "There's nothing left to live for. All that remains are Syrian dogs." Every once in a while, others chanted, "All of us are Pierre Gemayel." Sentiments soon turned to anger, as the crowd shouted obscenities about Aoun and Nasrallah. Others, huddled in knots, talked about marching on Aoun's headquarters, the presidential palace in Baabda or Nasrallah's stronghold in south Beirut. Supporters lit fires outside the Phalangist Party headquarters near downtown Beirut and at a nearby intersection. Other fires were lit in trash dumpsters along a street that trailed from Sassin Square, where a monument stands to Gemayel's uncle. "This is the fire in our hearts," said 50-year-old Yusuf Badawi, as he watched five tires burn. Down the street, Michel Sangari, a 19-year-old draped in the flag of the Phalangist Party, was bleaker. "A war's going to happen," he said. "Our brothers are prostitutes." Across town in Haret Hreik, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood, sporadic bursts of gunfire pierced the sky, a traditional show of celebration. They upset Anwar Macki, a 45-year-old pharmacist. "They say, 'Who cares, let him die. There's one less of them.' " He shook his head in dismay. "If you're against him, it's okay, but you don't have to be happy about it." He cleared the counter of stray boxes of antibiotics and prepared to close, as his son and daughter waited for him near the door. "Really, the future is obscure," he said finally. "You can't see anything." Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim contributed to this report.