No to force
Following further violence, demonstrations against bombings and assassinations colour the streets of Beirut as investigations continue into their source, writes Mohalhel Fakih
Lebanese youths have again taken to the streets of downtown Beirut, to protest another explosion in a rattled city that has witnessed at least 12 bombings and assassinations since the 14 February murder of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. "Kifaya", meaning "enough" in Arabic, read placards that were raised by university and high school students who converged on the capital's central square. They also held portraits of May Chidiac, the famous television news anchor who was the target of the latest explosion.
Lebanese of all factions, religions and political leanings participated in rallies and denounced the escalating bloodshed, which Prime Minister Fouad Siniora termed a "war" waged by "terrorists". The UN Security Council, already deeply involved in Lebanon, described last week's bombing as a terrorist attack and expressed its readiness to assist. "You cannot shut an entire nation up," read one banner in the downtown demonstration. But Lebanon has, in effect, been in the grips of a violent political and security crisis.
"We are at war with this enemy that is called terrorism," Siniora told reporters, and confirmed requesting technical and logistical support from more than 10 countries, including the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to combat rising bloodshed. He asked the UN Security Council to handle the investigation into last Sunday's near-fatal car bomb attack that targeted Chidiac, a famous media personality and a vocal critic of Syria's military and intelligence presence in Lebanon. Damascus has been denying accusations by many Lebanese that it was behind attacks in Lebanon and said its security role in the country ended when it withdrew in April.
"We will triumph in this war," the premier pledged, but expected further violence, saying "those harmed by [UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis] report [on the assassination of late Prime Minister Al-Hariri] will practise terrorism." Siniora's warning compounded fears over the impact of a final report on the probe of Al-Hariri's killing by a UN team, which is interrogating top Lebanese security chiefs suspected of involvement in Al-Hariri's murder. The report was due before the end of October. The prime minister told reporters on Sunday that Mehlis would ask the UN to extend his mandate until December.
Siniora's government request for foreign security assistance was met by strong opposition from Hizbullah, the Muslim Shia group that is under pressure by UN Security Council Resolution 1559 to disarm. Still, US FBI agents arrived in Beirut to help authorities in their investigations of who attempted to kill Chidiac last week. "We will not substitute one custodian with another," Siniora said, in reference to allegations that the US has merely replaced Syria in its former role.
"We do not want America's intelligence and its investigations," Hizbullah's second in command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, told a gathering in Beirut's southern suburb. He blamed Washington for the turmoil that engulfed Lebanon since the assassination of Al-Hariri, accusing the US of "interfering" in the country's affairs. The US, which brands the Syrian and Iranian-backed Hizbullah as a terrorist organisation, has been, along with France, piling pressure on Beirut to disarm the group as well as Palestinian factions in Lebanon, under UNSC Resolution 1559, co-sponsored by both countries.
Palestinian weapons are of renewed concern since reports surfaced claiming that pro-Syrian Palestinian guerrillas have been smuggling arms across the porous border into Lebanon from Syria. UN envoy for the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1559, Terje-Roed Larsen, raised the matter with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo recently. And in Lebanon, security forces bolstered their presence near bases of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), south of Beirut near the hill town of Naameh and in the Bekaa Valley. Lebanese Army troops do not enter twelve Palestinian camps scattered across Lebanon, and have only been stationed outside the shantytowns since the 1960s. Rival Palestinian factions run the camps.
News of the alleged arms shipments only increased pressure on Syria, which many in Lebanon accuse of assassinating Al-Hariri despite strong denials by top Syrian officials. Contrary to other denials regarding Syria's role in Lebanese politics, one of Syria's former allies, Defence Minister Elias Murr, explicitly accused former Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon Roustom Ghazali of threatening him. Murr told Chidiac's television station, LBC, he had "had enough" and wanted to speak out against Syria's past practices in Lebanon. Murr survived a bomb attack in July and is now in Switzerland. But Syria's official news agency, SANA, quoted an official as calling Murr's statements "lies and fabrications". However, the UN team investigating Al-Hariri's assassination is reportedly probing Murr's revelations. German prosecutor Mehlis, who is leading UN investigators into Al-Hariri's case, interviewed this month a number of Syrian officials as "witnesses".
So far no one has been formally arraigned for Al-Hariri's murder, and there have been no arrests relative to the bombings that have rocked Lebanon since the former prime minister was killed. "The members of the Security Council warn that those responsible for such crimes will not be permitted to jeopardise the stability, sovereignty, democracy and national unity of Lebanon," a statement by the Council said after the attack on Chidiac. Days after the attempted murder of the TV star, a Lebanese judge apparently escaped a similar explosion. Police found bomb-making material near his car. Judge Nazem Khoury had presided over investigations into money laundering and embezzlement activities at the now defunct Al-Madina Bank. Cases of fraud reportedly involved Lebanese and Syrian officials.
President Emile Lahoud, who is under pressure to quit after the head of his presidential guards, Mustafa Hamdan, was detained in Al-Hariri's case, linked bloodshed in Lebanon to developments in the region and said they were part of a "conspiracy" against the country tied to "the pressures that are being practised against a number of countries in the region". The pro-Syrian president was addressing Iranian Shura Council leader Gholan Haddad Adel in Beirut. The Iranian official, on a visit to Lebanon, earlier told reporters the Islamic Republic opposed "intervention by foreign parties in Lebanon". He accused the US of fomenting discord among different groups in the country, which is sensitive to any sectarian division following the 1975- 1990 civil war.
Although President Lahoud continues to host foreign dignitaries and this month participated in UN General Assembly meetings in New York, he is facing mounting demands to step down. Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawwad, joining a growing list of officials, also accused the head of state of scuttling attempts to appoint new security chiefs to replace those suspected of taking part in the plot to kill Al-Hariri. "The Syrian regime and its remnants [in Lebanon] are waging a terrorist war in our country, against our people, and against independence," she said.
The president's press office criticised Mouawwad's statement and said Lahoud has actually been pushing the government to appoint new security chiefs.