Assassination inflames tensions in shaken Lebanon

Posted in Broader Middle East | 22-Nov-06 | Author: Michael Slackman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Nicole Gemayel, the sister of the slain Lebanese industry minister, Pierre Gemayel, grieving by her brother's coffin.

BEIRUT: Thousands of mourners paid their respects Wednesday to the family of Pierre Gemayel, the Lebanese cabinet minister and strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon whose assassination Tuesday jolted a nation paralyzed by political conflict.

Dressed mostly in black, thousands of people lined up to embrace or shake the hands of members of Gemayel's family in his hometown of Bikfeiya. Sympathizers waving the white and green flags of the Phalange party, founded by Gemayel's grandfather, walked behind the coffin as it was carried through the streets. Women on balconies above them threw rice on the procession. Television images showed mourners sobbing over his closed coffin after it was set in place for viewing.

On Wednesday, the first day of mourning for Gemayel, 34, was Lebanon's Independence Day, but celebrations were canceled. The funeral will be Thursday.

The killing of Gemayel, the scion of a prominent Maronite Christian family, inflamed tensions between the anti-Syria coalition trying to hold its government together and the Syrian-allied opposition, led by Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported Shiite group. Hezbollah has threatened street protests if it is not given more power.

Lebanese radio reported that shots were also fired Tuesday into the Beirut office of Michel Pharaon, a Greek Catholic member of the governing coalition and minister for parliamentary affairs.

The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, vowed in a televised speech Tuesday that his government would hold firm. "I pledge to you that your blood will not go in vain," Siniora said. "We will not let the murderers control the fate of Lebanon and the future of its children."

In truth, his government may be on life support. Last week, six pro-Syria ministers aligned with Hezbollah resigned after a failed effort to gain greater control over the government. A seventh minister had resigned earlier in an unrelated conflict.

With Gemayel's death, there may now be too few ministers to pass any measures, and it appears that if the government were to lose one more minister it would automatically collapse.

The prime minister's political allies in the so-called March 14 coalition - a pro-Western group of Sunni Muslims, Druse and Christians - blamed Syria for the killing.

"We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place," Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, said Tuesday, shortly after Gemayel was pronounced dead.

On Wednesday, the Druse leader, Walid Jumblatt, said he expected more bloodshed. "It seems the Syrian regime will continue with the assassinations," he said at a news conference, according to a report by Reuters. "I expect more assassinations but no matter what they do, we are here and we will be victorious."

Officials in Damascus and Syria's allies in Lebanon condemned the killing.

Gemayel, the industry minister, was the fifth anti-Syria figure to be killed since Hariri's assassination rocked Lebanon in February 2005. Gemayel's killing reverberated far beyond Lebanon. Condemnations poured in from Britain, Germany, Italy, France, the European Union, Jordan, Egypt and the United States. President George W. Bush suggested in a statement that the assassination was part of a plan by Syria, Iran and its allies to "foment instability and violence" in Lebanon.

The United States is heavily invested in the survival of Siniora's government, which has offered Washington a chance - however faded - to thwart the spread of Iranian influence in the region. The killing also is likely to complicate any American effort to enlist Syria's help to stabilize Iraq.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after Hariri was assassinated and suspicion fell heavily on Syria. Now the White House is under pressure domestically and abroad to engage with Syria and Iran to quell the violence in Iraq.

But the suspicion that Syria is behind the efforts to destabilize Lebanon will make it nearly impossible for Washington to send a full ambassador back to Damascus without appearing to have abandoned the Siniora government.

At the same time, any allegation of Syria's involvement is likely to antagonize Syrian officials - and make them even more reluctant to back off of a military, political and economic alliance with Iran.

For a time, after the initial occupation of Iraq and the assassination of Hariri, Syria's ruling elite felt threatened, vulnerable and isolated. Syria was humiliated when it was forced, after the Hariri killing, to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon.

But in recent days, Syria has found its strategic stature in the Middle East bolstered by the surge of violence in Iraq, and the suggestion that Washington might soon ask for its help. While it has denied any role in any of the Lebanon violence, it has not denied its desire to reinsert itself as the primary force in Lebanon.

In the complex and shadowy world of Lebanon's long-warring factions, conspiracy theories can cut both ways. Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies said the only beneficiaries of Gemayel's death were anti-Syria forces. They also argued that the newly inflamed environment would make it impossible for Hezbollah to follow through anytime soon with its promised protests.

The UN Security Council, spurred by Gemayel's killing, approved a proposal by Secretary General Kofi Annan for the creation of an international tribunal to try those accused of Hariri's assassination. The tribunal still has one major hurdle to clear before it can go to work: It must be approved by the government of Lebanon, which is deeply divided over its existence. Moreover, no one has yet been charged in Hariri's death.

While young, Gemayel was a third- generation politician from a family that founded a far-right, nationalist party called Phalange. The party fielded the largest militia during Lebanon's civil war and sought to unite Christians against all other groups. The party today is very small, yet Gemayel stood as a potent symbol to a portion of Lebanon's Christian community that is frightened and angered by its loss of primacy in Lebanon's political arena.

"He is not powerful in himself," said Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst. "But his uncle was president, his father was president, his grandfather founded the Phalange. He's a symbol of all that history much more than he is a power on the streets. This is a great blow to Lebanese Christians in general."

While there was anger in the streets, there was also anxiety. The city slowed down, as it might before a storm. Shops closed early in downtown Beirut; the army began patrolling the streets.

On the campus of the American University of Beirut, hundreds of students gathered near the main gate, discussing the news in hushed tones. Ali Hamadeh, 18, a first-year civil engineering student, voiced the fears of many students in describing his anxieties about the future.

"We think it may lead to another civil war," Hamadeh said. "It's a disaster for Lebanon, on the level of the Hariri assassination. The people will go to the streets - and at the very least the government will change."