Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 October 2004
Issue No. 711
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lebanon at the crossroads

Walid Jumblatt remains defiant. An attempt on the life of one of his top allies failed to silence him, reports Mohalhel Fakih from Beirut

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Hamadeh (l) and his close ally Jumblatt heading to Lebanese parliament (photo: Reuters)

Walid Jumblatt spurned pressure to join a new government and his colleagues in the Christian Qornet Shehwan Gathering set out tough conditions to participate in a government that has urgent business to handle. Not the least of the Lebanese government's troubles is the fact that it faces the wrath of the United Nations over Syria's and Lebanon's decision not to implement a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbullah.

Damascus, and consequently Beirut, could find themselves mired in Security Council censure. The two neighbouring countries have already been declared in breach of a crucial resolution. "The allegations of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs are so widespread in Lebanon andwithin the region and the international community. In his report, the UN secretary-general said that the Syrian military presence and substantial intelligence officers presence, affords leverage by Syrians over Lebanon, but he noted that both governments denied these allegations," Najib Freiji, UN spokesman at the world body's regional headquarters in Beirut, told Al-Ahram Weekly, following a report that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled on compliance with Security Council Resolution 1559.

Hours before Annan announced the report on Friday an explosion shattered a sense of security that the Lebanese had by now been accustomed to following the 1975-1990 civil war. Its target was Marwan Hamadeh, an ex-minister who stepped down with two other allies of Druze leader Jumblatt to protest an amendment of Lebanon's constitution to extend President Emile Lahoud's mandate for three more years. Hamadeh is known as a man of dialogue and he has close links to Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri as well as ties to the Christian opposition.

Lahoud, other senior officials along with the opposition said the bombing was aimed at planting discord among the different Lebanese confessional groups. But there has been disagreement on who was behind the attack, which killed Hamadeh's driver and injured his bodyguard. No one was detained or arrested in connection with the assassination attempt.

Reiterating his view that Lahoud's extended mandate was "illegitimate", Jumblatt on Monday, lashed out at Syrian and Lebanese security services. He hinted at the possible involvement of intelligence units in the car bombing, saying they could be "responsible". He cited the use of a vehicle in the explosion that had been missing for seven years, and called for a probe into a possible "mole" in the presidential security services. He rhetorically added, Israel's "Mossad" secret service might have infiltrated the president's security services.

Pro-Lebanese government officials have blamed Israel for the attack. But opposition figures, including Gebran Tueini of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, said that the "dialogue among the Lebanese is not allowed", and the "unity of the opposition is not allowed", in reference to the unparalleled coordination between various opposition factions united in their rejection of extending Lahoud's mandate and the presence of Syrian troops.

Jumblatt, a former ally of Syria, has called for "rectifying" Lebanese-Syrian ties, although the head of the Progressive Socialist Party made efforts to explain that he supported strategic bilateral relations, which he said have been harmed by political interests and the intervention by the intelligence services of both countries in the details of Lebanese domestic affairs.

Jumblatt categorically rejected any involvement in the government. Al-Hariri, who had strongly objected to the extension of the mandate of his rival Lahoud, said he would resign. It remains uncertain whether he will head a caretaker government until legislative elections next Spring. Al- Hariri in the past complained that the president's camps did not allow internationally backed economic reforms to proceed.

On Sunday night Jumblatt met Al-Hariri, who later held a round of discussions with Qornet Shehwan opposition members in a bid to include the opposition, which staunchly opposes Syria's role in Lebanon, in a new government. The opposition said it would only join a government that will work for national conciliation and can take decisions that allow the Lebanese to manage their own affairs. Among the traditional calls of Qornet Shehwan, supported by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, is Syria's troops withdrawal. The Patriarch has cautioned against turning Lebanon into a front line for superpowers and regional heavyweights. He also condemned Friday's attack against Hamadeh.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who described the car bombing, at Beirut's seafront district of Manara, as "abhorrent", warned against further strife in the country, and in his report spelled out justifications presented by Lebanon and Syria for the status quo.

"The Lebanese and Syrian governments told me that the timing of further withdrawals would be determined by the security situation in Lebanon and the region and through the joint military committee established pursuant to the Taif Agreement," Annan said in a report on compliance with Security Council Resolution 1559, adopted last month. The top UN official was referring to the Taif Accord of 1989, which ended Lebanon's civil war. One of its clauses -- the redeployment and eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops has yet to materialise, although Syria recently moved some three thousand soldiers.

The atmosphere that preceded Annan's report flashed back the bloody civil war years. Around the same time as Friday's bombing, rival Shia groups in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah and House Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal movement, clashed over what witnesses said was hanging posters in the Zebdine village square. Three people were injured and the Lebanese Army intervened, resulting in the injury of one soldier.

North of Zebdine, in the restive Ain Helweh Palestinian refugee camp, two militants belonging to a shadowy Islamist group were kidnapped by Fatah militiamen following deadly fighting last week. And over the weekend, authorities said 35 Arabs and Lebanese have been charged with planning terrorist attacks in the country, notably against Western targets, after an alleged Al-Qaeda leader, Ismail Al-Khatib, died in police custody. Officials said he died of a heart attack, but his family claimed he was tortured. Before that, Syrian workers rioted in an Armenian neighbourhood of Beirut because of a dispute with the district's residents.

The opposition hinted that the security incidents, all packed in a period of about two weeks in the region's smallest country, could not have been a coincidence.

Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) on Friday said, "The police state ... has proven its efficiency in targeting one of the symbols of the nation," in reference to Hamadeh. It claimed the bombing was in the context of "the aggressive campaign targeting PSP President Walid Jumblatt and which recently started with random arrests... to deter him from pursuing the struggle for a state of law and democracy."

Addressing 25 thousand people who thronged the narrow mountainous roads to attend the funeral of Ghazi Bou Karoum, Hamadeh's driver, in Mazraat Chouf village, Jumblatt said the man fell as a "martyr in the battle for national unity", which he stressed meant commitment to a democratic system, the implementation of the Taif Agreement, and the protection of

liberties. He said the "mistake of extending (president Lahoud's term in office) should be rectified."

Immediately after Friday's bombing, Syria dispatched Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam to the American University Hospital in Beirut, where Hamadeh remains in a stable condition. Facing an angry crowd, Khaddam said the Syrian leadership "was in great shock when it learned of the attempt" to kill Hamadeh. Khaddam agreed with the Lebanese that the blast targeted national accord.

Jumblatt has said Syria and Lebanon were offering the UN pretexts to tighten the noose on both of them, including Syrian "interference" in this country's politics. In his report, Annan made a long list of unimplemented clauses that Beirut called unfair and exaggerated. However, he pointed out Lebanon and Syria insist that they respect the Security Council. "It was widely contended in Lebanon and asserted by the co- sponsors of resolution 1559, that the extension of President Lahoud's term in office was the result of a direct intervention by the government of Syria," the UN chief said. He said that Beirut and Damascus denied any Syrian intervention.

He suggested a time line to implement the resolution, co-sponsored by the US and long time ally of Lebanon and Syria, France. Annan's recommendation was turned down by Beirut and Damascus. Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Essam Fares expressed concerns over the weekend that the UN Security Council might create a follow up committee to issue monthly reports on progress towards disarming Hizbullah and Palestinian militias, as well as Syria's troops presence, and Damascus's political role in the country.

International sources in Beirut told the Weekly such a move could pave the way for countries which have maintained a tough line, in an apparent reference to Paris, to call for a new resolution, but this time it could be under Chapter Seven, which sanctions the use of force. Resolution 1559 that Annan said intended to preserve Lebanon's territorial integrity, independence and freedom, falls under Chapter Six, allowing for diplomatic contacts.

Resolution 1559 left the options wide open for further measures. Depending on Lebanese and Syrian reactions, diplomats told the Weekly, the situation could turn messy towards a "coercive resolution that will bring back the sad experience of Iraq, in which one resolution is followed by dozens of others". The sources criticised Lebanon for consulting with Syria on a response to Annan's report, ahead of the Security Council's meeting, saying it only amplified allegations "that the Lebanese are under Syrian influence and did not take into consideration the clear UN warning".

"We had hoped it would be more comprehensive, just, accurate, deep and fairer to us," Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said of the report, accusing the UN of being "soft and docile" on Israel. But the UN spokesman in Beirut, Najib Freiji, told the Weekly, the secretary-general reiterated criticism of Israeli air violations over Lebanon, and listed a long litany of Israeli military operations in Lebanon from 1978 to 2000, and that the Security Council had endorsed Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, noting that the Shebaa Farms, contrary to Beirut's position, is Syrian land that Israel has been occupying. Beirut has been justifying Hizbullah's armed presence along the border by Israel's occupation of the region. Backed by Damascus, it said the Shebaa Farms were Lebanese land, a stance the UN rejected.

France and the US appear united in their Lebanon policy. They both demanded probing the assassination attempt against Hamadeh, and want to see resolution 1559 implemented. Even Prime Minister Al-Hariri's good offices at the Elysée Palace failed to budge Paris's unwavering support for the resolution. France said it was pressing for the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.

The US also said it was working in that direction. The regional director of the Middle East Partner Initiative, Peter Mulrean, told the Weekly in Beirut, "President Bush in his speech in November last year admitted that the US followed for 60 years a policy of not promoting democracy. It was a mistake. There is no more Middle East exception."

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