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Middle East: Hariri's Killing Preceded By Steady Rise In Political Tensions

A man flees the site of the explosion in Beirut The role of Syria in Lebanese politics is coming under intense scrutiny following the assassination yesterday of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Opposition leaders have said that Syria, which has had a large troop presence in Lebanon since the end of the country's civil war in 1990, bears responsibility for Hariri's death, but stopped short of accusing Damascus or Lebanon's Syrian-backed government of outright involvement in the killing. RFE/RL takes a look at recent Beirut-Damascus relations, which have included a major new push by the United States and France to end Syria's de facto occupation of the neighboring state.

Prague, 15 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For nearly 15 years, Lebanon has been mostly peaceful following a decade-and-a-half civil war that left 100,000 people dead.

But after yesterday's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, the specter of violence is again haunting this Mediterranean nation just as it seemed poised for rebirth.

Syria, the de facto power broker in Lebanon since the civil war's end in 1990, has come under fire, mainly from Washington, for its possible role in bombing Hariri's motorcade along Beirut's luxury seafront.

Syria has denied any involvement in the attack, which killed at least 14 other people in the biggest blast in Lebanon since the end of the civil war.
"The government of the [Lebanese] president and prime minister are generally seen as pro-Syrian, [as opposed to] leading opposition groups, which Hariri had aligned himself to."

Tensions have been rising in Lebanon since September 2004, when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559. Backed by the United States and France, the resolution called on Syria to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon and stop meddling in its neighbor's affairs.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called yesterday's murder "a terrible reminder" that Lebanon must be "free from Syrian occupation." Washington, he added, will push the Security Council at a meeting today to implement Resolution 1559.

"The United States will consult with other governments in the region, and on the Security Council today, about measures that can be taken to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack, to end the use of violence and intimidation against the Lebanese people, and to restore Lebanon's independence, sovereignty, and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation," McClellan says.

Experts say Resolution 1559 marked the end of the international community's recognition of Syria's de facto occupation of Lebanon, which has been widely credited with stabilizing the nation after its bloody civil war.

The resolution, forged from a unique convergence of U.S. and French interests in Lebanon, had sought to pressure Syria to allow Lebanon to proceed with scheduled presidential elections last September.

Syria, however, ignored the resolution, which it said amounted to meddling in its own affairs. Beirut's Syrian-controlled parliament proceeded to amend Lebanon's constitution to allow the country's pro-Damascus president, Emile Lahoud, to remain in office for another three-year term.

Backed by the new international pressure on Damascus, and angered over the vote in parliament, anti-Syrian voices began to grow louder in Lebanon. And Hariri's voice was the most prominent among them.

Michael Glackin is managing editor of "The Daily Star," an English-language newspaper in Beirut.

"The government of the [Lebanese] president and prime minister are generally seen as pro-Syrian, [as opposed to] leading opposition groups, which Hariri had aligned himself to -- although he hadn't officially said he was an opposition grouping politicians, but he did align himself with the opposition. And, you know, his basic policy [was] simply for Syria to end its presence in his country," Glackin says.

The anti-Syrian opposition involves a disparate array of mostly Christian forces supported by the U.S., France, and Israel.

The Bush administration has put massive pressure on Syria for its alleged role in aiding the Iraq insurgency and harboring Palestinian militant groups, such as the Iranian-backed Hizballah, which operates in Lebanon.

Analysts say France's vast economic interests in Lebanon began to suffer in recent years as Lahoud's government refused to implement economic reforms backed by Hariri, who was considered a friend of French President Jacques Chirac.

France, which has called for an investigation into yesterday's killing, loudly criticized U.S. economic sanctions passed on Syria last May. But after Syria moved to get Lahoud's term extended in late August, Paris joined Washington in putting pressure on Damascus.

Syria, in turn, is seen as having key economic and strategic interests in Lebanon, and thus unlikely to easily quit the country.

But while politics have turned bitter ahead of Lebanon's general elections in May, not everyone is convinced that Syria is behind Hariri's assassination.

Jihad Khazen, a Beirut journalist and close associate of Hariri's, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that it would not have been in Syria's interests to kill the popular former premier.

"I hope that Syrians are not involved. I think only a madman would be involved in something like this. I really hope and pray that Syrians are not involved because anyone who is involved will have to pay the price for it," Khazen said.

Khazen said the size of the blast -- the equivalent of an explosion caused by 300 kilograms of dynamite -- is beyond the scope of any local armed groups.

"I think now, with his assassination, there will be even more sympathy for Hariri himself, for his supporters and for the opposition at large," Khazen said.

The opposition has largely blamed Syria for Hariri's murder. Protesters hurled stones at an office of Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party in Beirut yesterday and burned pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Others chanted anti-Syrian slogans outside Hariri's palace in Beirut's Qoreitem neighborhood.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown Islamic group, apparently angered over Hariri's ties to the Saudi royal family, has issued a video claim of responsibility for the killing.

Lebanese security forces said today they had raided the home of a man identified as a Palestinian who had read the claim, aired on Al-Jazeera, but that he was not in the house.