December 13, 2005

Analysis: Lebanon shows cracks under weight of killings

By Lin Noueihed

BEIRUT (Reuters) - It has become all too familiar in
Lebanon. An anti-Syrian politician or journalist is killed,
condemnations pour in from friends and foes alike, the funeral
attracts thousands, while officials urge unity.

Yet the longer a U.N. inquiry into the murder of ex-Prime
Minister Rafik al-Hariri drags on, the more every assassination
threatens to rekindle sectarian divisions between the mostly
Shi'ite Muslim supporters of Damascus and its Christian, Sunni
and Druze opponents.

On Monday, Gebran Tueni, a newspaper magnate and staunch
critic of Syria's erstwhile domination of Lebanon, became the
third Lebanese to be killed in a car bombing since the truck
bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on February 14.

Three others, including Tueni's uncle the Druze Telecoms
Minister Marwan Hamadeh, have barely escaped with their lives.

All of those killed since Hariri have been Christians who
helped lead popular protests and lobby international pressure
for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April.

But while anti-Syrians mourned, many Shi'ites received the
news with indifference.

"We are facing a real state of war, not a traditional or
classical war but a war that is being carried out through these
assassinations," said Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese
Forces, a Christian party that was a powerful wartime militia.

"They are waging a war to prevent the establishment of a
real state in Lebanon ... They are raising the temperature a
couple of degrees by a couple of degrees and think we will not
notice until the country falls apart," he told LBC television.

On Monday, the government voted to ask the U.N. Security
Council, which meets within hours to discuss a report that
points to Syrian and Lebanese involvement in Hariri's murder,
to expand the investigation to all cover all those killings.

It also demanded a trial with an "international character"
to try suspects in Hariri's case, prompting the withdrawal of
five Shi'ite Muslim ministers close to Syria who complained
that the decision would mean too much Western involvement in

They have suspended their participation in cabinet and are
considering resigning.

"The Shi'ite ministers' walkout proves what we have
suspected, that their participation has been cosmetic, that the
country is divided along one sectarian line," said Osama Safa,
director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

"I think Hizbollah will wait for this Security Council
meeting. If the Security Council slaps sanctions on Syria then
the wild card will really be the Hizbollah response."


Washington considers Hizbollah, a Shi'ite guerrilla group
whose attacks helped end Israel's 22-year occupation of
southern Lebanon in 2000, a terrorist group.

Backed by Lebanon's former power broker, Syria, Hizbollah
was the only Lebanese militia to keep its weapons after the
1975-1990 civil war but is under increasing pressure to disarm.

The group has found itself at odds with the Security
Council, which last year passed a resolution demanding Syria
withdraw from Lebanon and all militia disarm, and has resisted
increasing international involvement in the country.

Hizbollah says it believes the United States will use
pressure on it to corner Syria, long on the U.S. list of state
sponsors of terror and which is under increasing pressure to
cooperate with the U.N. investigation that has implicated it in
Hariri's killing.

"It is crucial that Lebanon be as secluded as possible from
international and regional conflicts that are turning this into
a battle for Lebanon's custody rather than a struggle to
rebuild its state," said Robert Malley, Middle East and North
Africa director for the International Crisis Group.

"Lebanon is already vulnerable to sectarian differences. If
it also becomes the arena for regional and international
struggles, it might not weather the storm."

If the five Shi'ite ministers, loyal to Hizbollah and its
pro-Syrian ally, Amal, do resign, analysts say the government
would be hard pressed to find replacements to represent the
Shi'ites, the largest of Lebanon's myriad religious sects.

With everyone in Lebanon predicting the attacks will
continue, analysts say the wider the gulf becomes the more
difficult it will be to bridge, a fear that is never far from
the minds of Lebanese and that had been voiced by Tueni

At an March 14 rally to demand the Syrians withdraw from
Lebanon, six days after a Hizbollah rally thanking them for
their 29-year military involvement, the crowds repeated his vow
of unity: "We swear by God Almighty, Muslims and Christians, to
remain united and defend great Lebanon forever and ever."