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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February, 2005, 21:27 GMT
Lebanon fears turbulent times ahead
By Jim Muir
BBC News

Protester with portrait of Rafik Hariri
Mr Hariri is said to have planning a political comeback
Rafik Hariri joins a long list of prominent Lebanese leaders assassinated over three decades of strife in the country.

In virtually all cases, nobody has been brought to court for their deaths, and responsibility has never been reliably and indisputably placed at any particular door.

The former prime minister's death will inevitably raise fears that after a period of relative stability and reconstruction - much of it overseen by Hariri himself - the country may now be on the brink of another period of turbulence.

There is anxiety it could be caught up in a welter of regional and international struggles as the US strives to pressure Syria and force the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon.

Syria's opponents in Lebanon have already pointed accusing fingers directly at Damascus.

Syrian influence

While Hariri had not openly joined the anti-Syrian opposition, he had for years been at odds with Syria's staunch ally, President Emile Lahoud.

He resigned as prime minister last October after Damascus put its weight behind a constitutional amendment which allowed a three-year extension to Mr Lahoud's term of office.

In fact, some of Syria's keenest supporters accused Hariri of being behind the US-backed UN Security Council resolution last September calling for a Syrian troop withdrawal.

Some members of Hariri's large parliamentary bloc also attended opposition meetings which urged Damascus to pull its troops out.

Syria's critics will undoubtedly argue that, although Hariri was out of office, he was a man who had often staged political comebacks, and indeed was planning to do so again in the general elections scheduled for May.

Had he resumed the premiership with a strong mandate to challenge the pro-Syrian president, he might have mounted a powerful if oblique threat to the Syrian troop presence in Lebanon, which dates back to 1976.

Islamist claim

Syrian leaders were however swift to condemn Hariri's assassination in very strong terms.

Responsibility for the killing was purportedly claimed by a hitherto unheard-of group calling itself "Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria".

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri
Does Mr Hariri's death pose a threat to Lebanon's stability?
Similar claims from unknown groups almost always follow such outrages and have in the past been dismissed by analysts as attempts to muddy the waters and deflect suspicion.

The Victory and Jihad claim was clearly intended to imply that Islamist militants had carried out the assassination as an extension of the Saudi insurgency.

That would be a novelty in Lebanon.

There was no apparent reason why such a group should suddenly target the former Lebanese prime minister, even if it had the capability.

Even if genuine, the claim would not rule out other quarters having a hand in the affair.

Israeli question

The manner of Hariri's death strongly suggests involvement by a major intelligence agency.

It had clearly been meticulously planned on the basis of strong and accurate intelligence about the former prime minister's movements.

The size and precision of the explosion left the intended victim no chance of survival and reflected a capability that would be surprising were it to be within the means of a small, random group.

Rashid Karami
Prime Minister Rashid Karami was killed by a bomb in 1987
After similar assassinations in the past, Lebanese analysts have pointed out that, while Syria may have been the most obvious suspect, that might give its sworn enemies - mainly Israel - strong motivation to carry out an action that would most likely be blamed on Damascus.

Israel certainly has the capability, and will undoubtedly be blamed by some, despite a lack of obvious motive.

Israel has never credibly denied that its agents carried out the first car-bomb assassination in modern Lebanese times, when the Palestinian intelligence chief Abu Hassan Salameh - blamed by Israel for the Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 - was blown up by a massive bomb which shook West Beirut in 1979.

Maverick figure

Lebanese analysts have also said that, given the complex and deceptive ways in which the major regional and international intelligence agencies operate and the widespread use of cut-outs, perhaps only a very small handful of people really know who was ultimately behind any given assassination.

The 1980s saw a spate of murder mysteries, most of them involving massive bombs, which make it easier to avoid detection than other methods where assassins might risk exposure.

Two newly-elected presidents, Beshir Gemayel in 1982 and Rene Muawad in 1989, and the Mufti of the Republic, Shaikh Hassan Khaled in 1989, were all killed by such bombs.

So was one of Hariri's predecessors as prime minister, Rashid Karami - in his case, the bomb was placed aboard the helicopter he was travelling in, in 1987.

During the period of relative tranquillity and reconstruction of the 1990s such attacks died away.

But former Christian militia chief Elie Hobeiqa was killed by a car bomb in January 2002, and a Druze former minister, Marwan Hamadeh, narrowly survived a similar attempt in September last year.

The violent removal of such a major figure as Rafik Hariri will shake the confidence of many Lebanese in the peace they have been enjoying since the Taif agreement of 1989.

Hariri was one of the chief architects of the Saudi-sponsored accord itself, and of the reconstruction which followed it.

Controversial though his dynamic, free-spending, business-orientated style may have been, the Lebanese-born Saudi billionaire was one of a very small handful of Sunni politicians capable of filling the premiership - and possibly the only one powerful enough to do so with his own independent agenda.


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