Beirut: The bomb that killed a former Lebanese finance minister and critic of the Syrian government has unleashed a storm of political recriminations that threaten the fragile entente keeping the Syrian war from spilling outright into Lebanon.
The former minister, Mohamad B. Chatah, was one of the closest advisers to Saad Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, another opponent of the Syrian leadership whose assassination in a 2005 bombing touched off the March 14 protest movement that helped end Syria’s 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
After the killing of Mr Chatah on Friday, Saad Hariri, himself a former prime minister, and his March 14 political allies quickly issued statements implying that the Syrian government or its ally Hezbollah were responsible for the bombing, which killed at least six people and wounded dozens, and drew parallels to the killing of Rafik Hariri, for which the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon has indicted four Hezbollah operatives.
The allegations were electric in a country that is deeply divided over Syria, with Hariri’s Future bloc, the main Sunni party, backing the opponents of President Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that is also Lebanon’s most powerful political party, supporting him.
Syria’s conflict has already touched Lebanon. Street fighting has erupted in the northern city of Tripoli. Car bombings in the southern suburbs of Beirut have been widely blamed on Syrian insurgents or their backers. Hezbollah has sent its fighters into combat alongside Syrian forces and accused the Future bloc of backing Lebanese militants who have joined insurgents across the porous border.
In such a climate, Lebanese politicians on both sides of the divide said the country could ill afford the loss of Mr Chatah, 62. He was regarded even by opponents as a moderate who could foster dialogue across political and sectarian lines, and was taking part in talks to end the political impasse that has left Lebanon without a government for months.
Shattered: Palls of smoke rise from the scene of the attack, which occurred in a part of downtown Beirut some Lebanese saw as a symbol of the country’s rebirth. Photo: AFP
Hezbollah condemned the attack as an attempt to sow divisions in Lebanon, and its leaders, along with Syrian officials, called the allegations against them dangerous and irresponsible.
From 2005 to 2008, long before the conflict in Syria, Lebanon was riven by an acrimonious political struggle, with numerous assassinations of mainly anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. That conflict pitted Hezbollah and its Syrian allies against the Hariri coterie of pro-Western politicians. At one point, the entire March 14 parliamentary bloc holed up in Beirut’s Phoenicia Hotel for months, fearing assassination. The conflict ended when Hezbollah gained the dominant share in Lebanon’s government.
Today, those divisions have been magnified by the war in Syria and the larger regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that helps fuel it.
The bombing on Friday morning was the first to mar Beirut’s renovated downtown since Rafik Hariri’s murder, which occurred nearby. It dealt a psychological blow to the city and left the business district, normally bustling and sparkling with Christmas decorations, oddly silent.
“This is a time when this plaza would be crowded, full of hope and colours, and now it’s black with this criminal act,” said Elie Ward, the manager of the Sultan Ibrahim restaurant, watching as investigators examined a charred car chassis. “But Beirut is sending a message to all the world that she will stay alive.”
Mr Chatah had served as ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2000, had worked at the International Monetary Fund and had been a spokesman for the Lebanese government.
Born in Tripoli, he was married, with two children.
On his blog he recently warned that Dr Assad could never reform or restore stability to Syria, and that his ally Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, would prefer a prolonged and spreading war to letting him fall. That, he wrote, “will help terrorism flourish even more. Both the kind manipulated and used by the regime to blackmail the West and the ‘authentic’ strain that festers and spreads in open wounds, like opportunistic parasites.”
In his last Twitter message on Friday morning, less than an hour before he was killed, he criticized Hezbollah, saying it sought the same “powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs”, referring to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon after its civil war.
The March 14 movement issued a statement implicitly blaming the bombing on Assad’s government: “The murderer is the same one, killing the Syrians and the Lebanese.”
Saad Hariri called the bombing a message to the international tribunal that is to hold its opening sessions on his father’s killing at The Hague in January.
“Those who assassinated Mohamad Chatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri,” he said, adding that they were “luring regional fires to our country.”
Analysts said that, if the Syrian government were responsible, it could have used other proxies besides Hezbollah, which has an interest in maintaining calm, despite pressure from some supporters to respond to bombings in Hezbollah-dominated suburbs.
Friday’s bombing, which occurred as Mr Chatah rode in a car to a meeting, struck an area that symbolises the continuing struggle over Lebanon’s identity. The downtown area was largely destroyed during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Rafik Hariri rebuilt it as a shopping and office district mainly patronised by the wealthy. His critics saw it as a monument to corruption and nepotism; his supporters believed it was a symbol of rebirth.
Minutes after Friday’s blast, cars were aflame along a plaza in front of the Starco building complex, part of which survived the war largely unscathed. Mr Ward, the restaurant manager, said the bombing would deepen the country’s economic woes and gut holiday business. He blamed greedy, warring politicians who want to show people, “If you don’t go along with us, see what happens.”
“As long as there is conflict around Lebanon, there will be other bombs,” he said. “This is not the Lebanese community that I want.”
New York Times