Lebanon: Doves Scatter as Hawks Gather

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It was just before 1pm on Monday 14 February when the sunlight suddenly became sharper, my office building in east Beirut shook and a horrific thundering clapped from west Beirut. Thousands of doves took to a sky already blackened by a massive cloud pluming over the cityscape.

Former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri had been killed along with 16 other people, including his bodyguards and private medical assistant. A hundred more were wounded by the 300-kilo car bomb that tore apart Hariri's travelling motorcade, which made a ten-metre crater in the ground, set 22 cars on fire, ripped apart a hotel and shattered several others.

Strangely enough one bombed-out hotel, left unrepaired since the 15 year long civil war that ended in 1990, still stood its ground, rising up behind the site as a scarred reminder of Lebanon's past.

Hariri wanted to clear away such civil war remnants and rebuild highways, the airport and downtown Beirut. But despite funding thousands of scholarships for Lebanese students abroad during the civil war he was a ruthless businessman. He ignored the social needs of Lebanon - neglecting schools, hospitals, electricity, plumbing - and turned the downtown area into a playground for the wealthy.

Born in Sidon in south Lebanon to a Sunni peasant family, he became one of the world's 100 richest people after moving to Saudi Arabia to set up a construction company and later extended his empire to include banks, insurance companies as well as a newspaper, a radio and a television station.

Hariri headed five Lebanese governments since 1992 but quit in October last year when Syria amended the constitution to extend the mandate of pro-Syrian Christian president Emile Lahoud. He joined the opposition - a multi-sect movement made up of far right, centre right and centre left groupings. Hariri was a likely contender for the premier post in the upcoming May elections, with the backing of the business community, and was threatening the Syrian status quo.

Syria's presence in Lebanon dates back to 1976 when it intervened with US approval to crush a left wing revolt. Although last September the UN Security Council passed resolution 1559, which calls for the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces, 15,000 Syrian troops are still deployed on Lebanese soil and President Lahoud speaks with the voice of President Asad in Damascus.

The Lebanese elections will play a decisive role in future developments. The opposition's call for support from 'the international community' to keep an eye on Lebanon is a clear signal to Europe and the US. The government is losing control over the situation and might push for violent confrontations to oust the strengthened opposition - a scenario which the US would use as a pretext to attack Syria.

The real reason for US pressure, however, is Syria's anti Iraq war stance. The US accuses Syria of harbouring Iraqi resistance fighters, supporting Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. To stave off threats from the US, Syria has now formed a self-defence pact with Iran - which the US also accuses of supporting terrorism - while the US has stepped up pressure further by withdrawing its ambassador to Syria.

Together with France the US is also demanding Syria quit Lebanon to safeguard US interests in the region. The Syrian Ba'ath regime would collapse with the implementation of resolution 1559 because a considerable section of the Syrian economy depends on Lebanon - there are approximately 1 million low-skilled Syrian workers in Lebanon easing the effects of US-enforced sanctions on Syria.

While Lebanon should be free of the Syrian military presence, it is the height of hypocrisy for the US and Israel to condemn an occupation. The Lebanese must have the right to run their own country, but more foreign intervention will only spread the catastrophe brought to Iraq.

On the day after Hariri's assassination an oppressive silence lay over Beirut. Overnight it had turned into a ghost town because of the official strike forcing all shops to close. But as black-clad demonstrators with Hariri posters held high - flung on motorbikes or riding in open vans - vented their anger at the attack, the determination of the Lebanese to take matters into their own hands was unmistakable.