by Mohamad Ozeir
(PNS) -- For Lebanon, Valentine's Day will never be the same. This small, fragile country, which enjoyed celebrating the holiday as a sign of belonging to the Western world, lost a symbol of hope for a better future in a troubled region. Rafiq Al-Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister and the driving force behind the rebuilding efforts in the post-war era, was assassinated in Beirut, the city he loved and served for over the past three decades.
The bombing of Hariri's motorcade in West Beirut sent the whole city, and subsequently all of Lebanon, into a state of shock. Political assassinations are not strange to Lebanon, which has survived 15 years of a civil war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, including presidents, prime ministers and religious figures. Just a few months ago, one of Al-Hariri's friends, Marwan Hamadee, was assassinated. Hamadee was a parliament member and a prominent figure in the opposition, which was allied with Al-Hariri and includes approximately 40 members of parliament. But Lebanese thought Al-Hariri was somehow untouchable.
They were wrong. His security detail, unsurpassed in the entire Middle East, his web of international relations and his status as a Forbes "Top 100 Wealthiest People in the World" could not protect him.
Even before the rescue work at the bomb site in downtown Beirut had ended, Lebanese and Arab television and radio airwaves were filled with speculation and finger-pointing. The list of accused is long, but three suspects stand out. The first is Syria, the major power broker in Lebanon, with a heavy military presence in the country since 1976, a large intelligence operation and a rubber-stamp local government. The second is Israel, which occupied the southern part of Lebanon until May 2000. The third is the "suspect du jour," the extreme Islamists connected to Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.
Syria and its allies in the Lebanese regime were held responsible for the crime by the political opposition in Lebanon, which immediately called for a total Syrian withdrawal from the country. The opposition believes that Syria did not want Al-Hariri, a major powerhouse among Lebanese Muslims, to make a similar call for a Syrian pullout. In response, the Lebanese regime, which is heavily supported and controlled by Syria, accused Al-Hariri and the opposition of being traitors and cronies of America and Israel.
As for Israel, its accusers have a long tradition of holding the Jewish state responsible for any political crime in Lebanon. Many Lebanese believe that any chaos in the country benefits this former occupier. Unrest anywhere in the Arab world, in fact, is often seen as directly benefiting Israel.
Those who accuse extreme Islamists say Al-Hariri's strong advocacy of the Western values of democracy, market economy and moderation made him a perfect target. The claim of responsibility for the assassination by an unknown group called "Support and Struggle in Greater Syria" cast more suspicion on the Islamists, considering their violent activities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of the confusion and tension of the moment, however, the political reality in Lebanon indicates that Syria will pay the price for Al-Hariri's assassination, whether or not it was involved. Already, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 demands the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. National elections are set for May, and the popular Al-Hariri supported the opposition. The Lebanese government has called the opposition traitors and spies for the West and Israel, and threatens a civil war if they should win the election. In this environment, with a prime minister who has openly threatened the opposition with words like, "We will show them in a few days," Syria will have increasing difficulty defending itself or its allies.
This is why the gathering of the opposition members in Al-Hariri's palace in Beirut immediately after the explosion held Syria and the Lebanese government responsible. They requested an international investigation of the crime and announced that no Lebanese official would be welcomed at Al-Hariri's funeral, scheduled for Feb. 16.
Aside from all the accusations and blame, the assassination of Al-Hariri took Lebanese back to the dark days when he first entered the political arena, in 1982. At that time, Israel had invaded most of the country, and a mushrooming civil war covered all parts of the small nation. Al-Hariri would later rise to become a visionary leader, a source of hope who served as prime minister for 10 years, rebuilt Beirut and helped establish a Lebanese middle class. But in the early 1980s, the future was anyone's guess. That's exactly the sense that Lebanon was left with on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 2005.
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