Opposition blames Damascus
The assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri has galvanised Lebanon's opposition
Within hours of the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri the Lebanese opposition was openly blaming Syria for the blast that killed the former prime minister, reports Mohelhel Fakih from Beirut. The Syrian response was as quick. Damascus strongly condemned Al-Hariri's murder, while for its part Washington said the attack was a "reminder" that Lebanon should be freed "of Syrian occupation".
"Rafiq Al-Hariri fell a martyr in the midst of the major battle to place Lebanese politics once more on a democratic track," thundered Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, owned by the late prime minister.
For many Lebanese Al-Hariri is the man responsible for the reconstruction of Beirut following the 1975-1990 Civil War, and their sorrow soon boiled over into anger at those who had perpetrated the crime. Whether Syria, or its allies in Lebanon's own government, did not matter.
"We don't want the authorities at the funeral," Walid Eido, a member of Al- Hariri's bloc in parliament, told reporters hours after the explosion. Al-Hariri's funeral was a popular ceremony, not a state event as the government had wanted, held at the Mohamed Al-Amin Mosque in the heart of Beirut, close to the café where he had had coffee with friends just minutes before he was killed.
President Emile Lahoud, the extension of whose term of office, under Syrian pressure, is blamed by many for raising tensions in Lebanon, called the former prime minister a "martyr of a united Lebanon". Al-Hariri resigned four months ago following the amendment in the constitution that allowed Lahoud, who enjoys strong Syrian backing, to remain in office. Lahoud announced a three-day mourning period which the opposition promptly said would become a three-day general strike.
Anti-Syrian sentiments are high. The ground floor of a high-rise building housing the office of the Syrian Baath Party in Beirut was attacked by protesters, despite appeals for calm from the family of the former prime minister.
"This regime is backed by the Syrians. It is a regime of terrorists that yesterday wiped out Rafiq Al-Hariri," Progressive Socialist Party chief Walid Jumblatt told a huge crowd at Al-Hariri's Beirut home. "I charge the Lebanese-Syrian police regime with responsibility for Al-Hariri's death."
Jumblatt bluntly told reporters he was "accusing the Lebanese government and its intelligence services, under the sponsorship and tutelage of the Syrians, of killing Al-Hariri and of being responsible for the recent attempt on Marwan Hamade's life".
Former minister Hamade, who survived a bomb attack in October in which his bodyguard was killed, told the crowd that "this is a horrible crime and the culprits are well known -- they begin in Damascus and end in the Lebanese government."
The opposition, including many representatives of Muslim and Christian communities and led by Jumblatt, converged on Al-Hariri's home in Koreitem after the attack. They demanded the international community "shoulder its responsibility" and called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops before legislative elections in May and for a caretaker government to take charge until that date.
"We hold the Lebanese authorities and the Syrians, the power behind the throne, responsible," said Muslim Shia MP Bassem Sabeh, who was standing next to Jumblatt.
"Two weeks ago Al-Hariri told me, 'it's either you or me.' It started with him," said Jumblatt , who vowed that neither Al-Hariri's killing, nor any other assassination, will "change the course of history".
"We cannot stay hostages, prisoners of a police state," Jumblatt told reporters. "The Lebanese will stick the course, and Lebanon will be independent, free and democratic."
Following a meeting of Al-Hariri's parliamentary bloc a spokesman said that for the past few days the Lebanese had been "listening to the accusations of treason levelled against the former premier and his colleagues in the opposition. They have been listening to the language of threats."
On the eve of his assassination Al-Hariri had told interviewers that he had joined the opposition within the framework of the Arab-brokered 1989 Taif Accord which ended Lebanon's Civil War and called for the redeployment of Syrian forces to the Bekaa Valley by 1992, ahead of a full withdrawal. He was also quoted in As-Safir as saying a victory for the opposition in May "would not amount to a defeat for Syria".
The opposition, charged by Prime Minister Karami of advancing Israeli and US interests, has been repeatedly accused of treason by the pro-Syrian government. Opposition factions had started to close ranks ahead of parliamentary elections, and the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon was emerging as a key issue in the elections.
Al-Hariri had criticised electoral draft law proposals that divided his power base in Beirut into three separate voting districts along sectarian lines, and his aides had complained of harassment after security forces rounded up volunteers working in one of his charities and interrogated them, accusing them of bribing voters a day before Al-Hariri was murdered.
The opposition remains defiant. "The attack will spur our struggle to see a free and independent Lebanon," said MP Nayla Mouawad whose husband, the late president Renee Mouawad was killed in a similar bombing in 1989, days after taking office.
"Lebanese Muslims and Christians have been engulfed in mourning," said Maronite Christian opposition MP Fares Saed. He demanded international protection. Lebanon's 17 sects have been making headway in reconciling civil war splits, especially recently after Muslims joined Christians in denouncing Syria's influence here.
All of Lebanon's religious groups have expressed frustration and anger at Al- Hariri's death, with the mufti of the republic, Sheikh Mohamed Rashid Qabbani, announcing that "Sunni Muslims in Lebanon feel that the killing targets them, their existence, role and dignity." He warned that stability in the country had been shaken as religious figures from all denominations, including the influential Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, streamed to Al-Hariri's home.
"The Syrians must be reigned in," said former Lebanese army commander General Michel Aoun in Paris. "They are responsible. They control the security and intelligence services, and if they are capable of eliminating political leaders they are capable of influencing election results."
Aoun plans to return to Beirut ahead of the May elections despite facing charges in Lebanon.
Commenting on the allegations that Syria was behind Al-Hariri's assassination, Information Minister Elie Ferzlier told CNN the accusations were "irresponsible".
The Security Council condemned the assassination and asked the secretary- general to expedite work on his report on compliance with September's Security Council Resolution 1559 which demands Syria withdraw troops from Lebanon, ends political interference and acts to disarm Hizbullah.
"Such acts are a reversion to a chapter in Lebanon's history that we hoped was long past," read a statement from Kofi Annan's office.
"This murder is a terrible reminder that the Lebanese people must be able to pursue their aspirations and determine their own political future free from violence and intimidation and free from Syrian occupation," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, adding that US President George W Bush "was shocked and angered".
French President Jacques Chirac, a friend of Al-Hariri's, called for an international probe into the assassination.
"France strongly condemns this crime. It asks that an international inquiry be launched without delay to determine the circumstances of this tragedy and who is responsible," his office said.
Iran, meanwhile, pointed the finger at Israel. "An organised terrorist structure such as the Zionist regime has the capability to launch an operation the aim of which is to undermine Lebanese unity," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.