Saturday, November 25, 2006

Julie Flint in the Guardian/There's no accounting for it

There's no accounting for it

Julie Flint

November 24, 2006 08:58 PM

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/julie_flint/2006/11/post_700.html

On Tuesday last week, Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon's Maronite Christian Minister of Industry, died after an unidentified assailant pumped dozens of bullets into his body through the window of his car. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked the United Nations for help in investigating the assassination. On Thursday, UN investigators began assisting the Lebanese inquiry into Gemayel's murder.

Now cast your minds back a few months.

Between 12 July and 14 August, more than 1,100 Lebanese civilians died - a third of them children - after the Israeli Air Force launched more than 7,000 air attacks on as many targets in Lebanon. The Israeli Navy unleashed another 2,500 bombardments. Amnesty International said Lebanon's infrastructure suffered destruction on a "catastrophic" scale. The US rights group Human Rights Watch accused Israel of launching "indiscriminate" attacks against civilians, in response to the kidnapping by Hizbullah of two Israeli soldiers, and of a "systematic failure" to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

More than three months later, there is no investigation into Israel's war. Nor is there any real pressure for one, from any side. It is hard to escape the conclusion that there will be no justice for the Lebanese killed in the summer war - 1,183 of them, at last count - just as there was no justice for the victims of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacre in Beirut's Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Chatila.

And yet there was - and still could be, perhaps - a chance of justice this time round. The International Criminal Court is an independent court, set up in 2002 to try those accused of the gravest crimes - genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes - when national courts are unwilling or unable to do so. Lebanon did not ratify the Statute of Rome that set up the ICC. But under Article 12.3 of the Statute it can ask the Court to consider whether war crimes have been committed in Lebanon, and then to investigate and prosecute them. All it would take is a fax to The Hague, signed by someone with the authority to represent the State.

Lebanese lawyers who know better say they cannot move until they have a water-tight case, until every "i" is dotted and every "t" crossed. This is nonsense: if the ICC accepts the case, it is the ICC that will investigate. That is the Court's job, not Lebanon's.

Why this reluctance to seek justice for what many consider to have been war crimes committed by Israel? Siniora is concerned that Lebanon might lose US support if he goes after its ally Israel. (Can he have forgotten how Washington "supported" Lebanon by providing Israel with cluster bombs and delaying a ceasefire at the UN in the summer?) Hizbullah is concerned that it, too, could be charged with war crimes. Among ordinary Lebanese, the mood is one of uninformed resignation. "Why bother?" they ask. "When was Israel ever punished, for anything?" They answer themselves: "Never."

Sooner or later, however, there has to be a first time - and the ICC could be the vehicle for it. The international reaction to Israel's July offensive was unlike any previous reaction. Under attack was not the Lebanon of the "rag-tag militias" of the 1980s and 1990s, but the Lebanon of old cliché - of beach clubs, night clubs and sexy women; a reconstructed, post-war Lebanon whose people had stopped slaughtering each other and were dancing the night away again. Day after day, week after week, the photographs of dead children - poor children in poor clothes - won sympathy for Lebanon where previously there had been little. It was the perfect moment to take the initiative. It was missed.

Lebanon today is a dangerously, and increasingly, polarised place. Pierre Gemayel's assassination has been turned into a show of political strength by the country's anti-Syrian factions, who have won the battle for a UN tribunal to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and who accuse Damascus of murdering Gemayel too - without, it has to be said, a shred of evidence. Precedent, certainly, but not evidence.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, announced on Thursday that the Court is close to launching prosecutions against some of those suspected of committing war crimes in Darfur. Sudan refused to allow the ICC to investigate in Sudan, just as Israel would, in all probability, if Lebanon referred the July/August war and the ICC agreed to open a criminal investigation into it. But the ICC has got what it needs despite Khartoum's lack of cooperation. There will be indictments of Sudanese officials and, hopefully, prosecutions. There could be of Israelis, too. It would be difficult, but not impossible.

Many Lebanese have lost their lives at the hands of the governments of Syria and Israel and have suffered torture in their jails. Both states should be called to account. The life of a poor Shia child is no less precious than that of a wealthy Christian politician. A demonstrator at the funeral of Gemayel carried a banner saying: "See you in court." He was addressing himself to Damascus. He should have added: "All of you, whoever you are."

Brian Whitaker in the Guardian/ A smoking gun

A smoking gun

Brian Whitaker

November 24, 2006 05:30 PM

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/brian_whitaker/2006/11/why_shoot_gemayel.html

Amid all the comment on the assassination of Lebanese industry minister Pierre Gemayel, one very obvious fact seems to have escaped everyone's attention: the fact that he was shot. I'm not sure how significant this may be but we ought, at least, to consider it.

Look at the pattern. Serge Brammertz, the Belgian prosecutor appointed by the UN to investigate the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri has also been looking into 14 other attacks which are probably related and have been widely blamed on Syria or its agents. Brammertz has now added the killing of Pierre Gemayel to his list, making 16 cases in total.

Spot the odd one out. Gemayel's killing was the only one that involved a gun. All the other attacks used explosives. In a report to the UN on June 10, Brammertz explained why, in his view, the first 15 cases were connected: there was linkage by motive and linkage by modus operandi.

Looking at the political background, it seems very likely that Gemayel's murder had a similar motive to all the rest. We can't be certain of that at present, however, because the Gemayel family, over the years, have made plenty of other enemies besides the Syrians.

The modus operandi is much more problematic. Gemayel was followed, his car was rammed, then he and his bodyguard were shot at close range, apparently with silenced guns. The killer, or killers, then vanished. In most countries we would assume it was a professional hit job.

It is reasonable to deduce from this that the attackers were not Syrians themselves but local people who knew the lie of the land and were confident of melting away once the job was done. This, of course, does not rule out a Syrian connection. But if Gemayel's assassination was linked to the other attacks and/or commissioned from Damascus, how can we explain the different modus operandi?

One possibility is that it was treated as an urgent job. Bombings and booby-trapped cars take a lot of planning and preparation. A shooting is quicker and simpler to organise. The risk of being caught in the act may be higher, but that can be dealt with by farming it out to a criminal gang (and presumably taking care to conceal the ultimate paymaster in the event that it goes wrong).

Another possibility is that the ongoing UN investigation prompted a change of methods. The original team responsible for earlier attacks may well have been shut down and dispersed as Brammertz follows their trail. The most recent progress report from Brammertz, last September, was generally dismissed as a damp squib - mainly because it did not contain any new or sensational revelations. But what his report did reveal was the painstaking nature of the investigation and its vast scale, including the analysis of millions of mobile phone calls.

On reading the report, anyone involved in the earlier attacks might easily have concluded they were too complex for safety, giving far too many clues away in the planning stages. A straightforward shooting (almost impossible in the case of a highly protected figure like Hariri but practicable in the case of Gemayel) might therefore be a wiser option. The conclusions that can be drawn are rather limited, but I think they are the following.

First, although the killing of Gemayel did not fit the usual pattern, that is not sufficient reason in itself to rule out a Syrian connection.

Second, we should not, at the same time, assume a Syrian connection, either. The different modus operandi means, at the very least, that other possibilities must be thoroughly explored by the UN investigators.

Finally, remember the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 which some instantly blamed on Islamists - though they turned out to have no part in it. If Syria is blamed prematurely for killing Gemayel but later cleared, you can bet your bottom dollar that Damascus will exploit it ruthlessly to cast doubt on the 15 other cases where the evidence, so far, is considerably more persuasive.

Syria is a convenient fallguy for Gemayel's death

Whatever the truth, without proof and with all the hatemongering I heard against Shi'ites, Lebanese people not Syrians from fellow Lebanese, coming from the speeches the other day, which is so frightening and depressing and dangerous for Lebanon, it is really worth asking other questions. Thus the following articles which raise alternative and valid points from respected writers.


Syria is a convenient fallguy for Gemayel's death

By Jonathan Cook in Nazareth

11/24/06 " Information Clearing House" -- -- Commentators and columnists are agreed. Pierre Gemayel's assassination must have been the handiwork of Syria because his Christian Phalangists have been long-time allies of Israel and because, as industry minister, he was one of the leading figures in the Lebanese government's anti-Syria faction. President Bush thinks so too. Case, apparently, settled.

Unlike my colleagues, I do not claim to know who killed Gemayel. Maybe Syria was behind the shooting. Maybe, in Lebanon's notoriously intrigue-ridden and fractious political system, someone with a grudge against Gemayel -- even from within his own party -- pulled the trigger. Or maybe, Israel once again flexed the muscles of its long arm in Lebanon.

It seems, however, as if the last possibility cannot be entertained in polite society. So let me offer a few impolite thoughts.

As anyone who watches TV crimes series knows, when there is insufficient physical evidence in a murder investigation for a conviction, detectives examine the motives of the parties who stood to benefit from the crime. Better detectives also consider whether the prime suspect -- the person who looks at first sight to be the guilt party -- is not, in fact, being turned into a fallguy by one of the other parties. The murderer may be the person who benefits most clearly from the crime, or the murderer may be the person who benefits from the prime suspect being fingered for the murder.

As most of our politicians and the media's commentators have deduced, suspicion falls automatically on Syria because the Christian Phalangists are one of Syria's main enemies in Lebanon. Partly as a result, they have opposed recent attempts by Syria's main ally in Lebanon, the Shiite group Hizbullah, to win a greater share of political power.

They are also -- and this seems to clinch it for most observers -- part of the majority in the pro-American government of Fuad Siniora that supports a United Nations tribunal to try the killers of Rafik Hariri, an anti-Syria politician and leader of the Sunni Muslim community, who was blown up by a car bomb more than a year and a half ago.

After all six Shiite ministers walked out of the Siniora cabinet two weeks ago, and now with Gemayel's assassination, the government is close to collapse, and with it the tribunal that everyone expects to implicate Syria in Hariri's murder. If Syria can "bump off" another two cabinet ministers and the government loses its quorum, Syria will be off the hook -- or so runs the logic of Western observers.

But does this "evidence" make Syria the prime suspect or the fallguy? How will Syria's wider interests be affected by the killing, and what about Israel's interests in Gemayel's death -- or rather, its interests in Hizbullah or Syria being blamed for Gemayel's death?

In truth, Israel will benefit in numerous ways from the tensions provoked by the assassination, as the popular and angry rallies in Beirut against Syria and Hizbullah are proving.

First, and most obviously, Hizbullah -- as Syria's main political and military friend in Lebanon -- has been forced suddenly on to the back foot. Hizbullah had been riding high after its triumph over the summer of withstanding the Israeli assault on Lebanon and routing an invasion force that tried to occupy the country's south.

Hizbullah's popularity and credibility rose so sharply that the leaders of the Shiite community had been hoping to cash in on that success domestically by demanding more power. That is one of the reasons why the six Shiite ministers walked out of Siniora's cabinet.

Despite the way the Shiite parties' political position has been presented in the West, there is considerable justification for their demands. The system of political representation in Lebanon was rigged decades ago by the former colonial power, France, to ensure that power is shared between the Christian and Sunni Muslim communities. The Shiite Muslims, the country's largest religious sect, have been kept on the margins of the system ever since, effectively disenfranchised.

With their recent military victory, this was the moment Hizbullah hoped to make a breakthrough and force political concessions from the Sunnis and Christians, concessions that indirectly would have benefited Syria. With Gemayel's death, the chances of that now look slim indeed. Hizbullah, and by extension Syria, are the losers; Israel, which wants Hizbullah weakened, is the winner.

Second, the assassination has pushed Lebanon to the brink of another civil war. With a political system barely able to contain sectarian differences, and with the various factions in no mood to compromise after the spate of recent assassinations, there is a real danger that fighting will return to Lebanon's streets.

This will most certainly not be to the benefit of Lebanon or any of its religious communities, who will be dragged into another round of bloodletting. Hizbullah's underground cadres who took on the Israeli war machine will doubtless have to come out of hiding and will pay a price against other well-armed militias.

The benefits for Syria are at best mixed. A possible benefit is that a bloody civil war may increase the pressure on the United States to talk to Syria, and possibly to invite it to take a leading role again in stabilising Lebanon, as it did during the last civil war.

But, given the continuing ascendancy of the hawks in Washington, it may have the opposite effect, encouraging the US to isolate Syria further.

Conversely, civil war may pose serious threats to Syrian interests -- and offer significant benefits to Israel. If Hizbullah's energies are seriously depleted in a civil war, Israel may be in a much better position to attack Lebanon again. Almost everyone in Israel is agreed that the Israeli army is itching to settle the score with Hizbullah in another round of fighting. This way it may get the next war it wants on much better terms; or Israel may be able to fight a proxy war against Hizbullah by aiding the Shiite group's opponents.

Certainly one of the main goals of Israel's bombing campaign over the summer, when much of Lebanon's infrastructure was destroyed, appeared to be to provoke such a civil war. It was widely reported at the time that Israel's generals hoped that the devastation would provoke the Christian, Sunni and Druze communities to rise up against Hizbullah.

Third, Syria is already the prime suspect in Hariri's murder and in the assasination of three other Lebanese politicians and journalists, all seen as anti-Syrian, over the past 21 months.

The US exploited Hariri's death, and the widespread protests that followed, to evict Syria from Lebanon. Syria's removal from the scene also paved the way, whether intentionally or not, for Israel's assault this summer, which would have been far more dangerous to the region had Syria still been in Lebanon.

Despite the looming threat of the UN tribunal into Hariri's death, from Syria's point of view the accusations have grown stale with time and threatened to prove only what everyone in the West already believed. With the walk-out by the Shiite ministers from the Lebanese government, the investigations were looking all but redundant in any case.

Gemayel's assassination, however, has dramatically revived interest in the question of who killed Hariri and brings Syria firmly back into the spotlight. None of this benefits Syria, but no doubt Israel will be able to take some considerable pleasure in Damascus's discomfort.

Fourth, the Israeli government has been under international and domestic pressure to engage with Syria and negotiate a return of the Golan Heights, an area of Syrian territory it has been occupying since 1967.

With it would be resolved the fraught question of the Shebaa Farms, still occupied by Israel but which Hizbullah and Syria claim as Lebanese territory that should have been returned in Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The status of the Shebaa Farms has been one of the main outstanding areas of dispute between Israel and Hizbullah.

President Assad of Syria has been hinting openly that he is ready to discuss Israel's return of the Golan Heights on better terms for Israel than it has ever before been offered.

According to reports in the Israeli media, Assad is prepared to demilitarise the Golan and turn it into a national park that would be open to Israelis. He would probably also not insist on a precise return to the 1967 border, which includes the northern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Traditionally Israel's leaders balked at this idea, and provoked popular fears by conjuring up the vision of Assad's father, Hafez, dipping his feet in the lake.

But if negotations on the Golan are desperately sought by the young Assad, Israel shows no interest in exploring the option. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has repeatedly ruled out talking to Damascus. That is for several reasons:

* Israel, as might be expected on past form, is not in the mood for making territorial concessions;
* it does not want to end Syria's pariah's status and isolation by making a peace deal with it;
* and it fears that such a deal might suggest that negotiations with the Palestinians are feasible too.

Peace with Syria, in Israeli eyes, would inexorably lead to pressure to make peace with the Palestinians. That is most certainly not part of Israel's agenda.

Gemayel's death, and Syria being blamed for it, forces Damascus back into the fold of the "Axis of Evil", and forestalls any threat of talks on the Golan.

Fifth, pressure has been growing in the US Administration to start talking to Syria, if only to try to recruit it to Washington's "war on terror". The US could desperately do with local local help in managing its occupation of Iraq. It is unclear whether Bush is ready to make such an about-turn, but it remains a possibility.

Key allies such as Britain's Tony Blair are pushing strongly for engagement with Syria, both to further isolate Iran -- the possible target of either a US or Israeli strike against its presumed ambitions for nuclear weapons -- and to clear the path to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Gemayel's death, and Syria's blame for it, strengthens the case of the neoconservatives in Washington -- Israel's allies in the Administration -- whose star had begun to wane. They can now argue convincingly that Syria is unreformed and unreformable. Such an outcome helps to avert the danger, from Israel's point of view, that White House doves might win the argument for befriending Syria.

For all these reasons, we should be wary of assuming that Syria is the party behind Gemayel's death -- or the only regional actor meddling in Lebanon.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist and writer based in Nazareth, Israel. His book " Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish State " is published by Pluto Press. His website is www.jkcook.net

What about the Shia opinion?

In the wake of Lebanese anti-Syrian Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel's assassination on Tuesday the debate is raging on who was behind the killing and why.

Thursday saw hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from all sects on the streets turn out for his funeral.

They were there in genuine sadness at the murder of an elected cabinet minister and to show their disgust at the continued way violent killings are being used to conduct politics in Lebanon.

The protest also saw calls for pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to resign and much anger directed against the also pro-Syrian Shi'ite group Hizbullah - whose supporters stayed away from the proceedings.

While the majority of voices publicized in the media have cast blame for Gemayel's assassination at Damascus' door, the less reported voice of the majority of Shi'ites in Lebanon reveals a startling contrast to those on show in Martyr's Square Thursday, an indication of the sharp polarization of opinion in Lebanon, which is more exposed today than at any time since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

One 25 year-old woman, a moderate Shi'ite whose home in the southern suburbs of Beirut was blown up by Israel fighter planes in last summer's Israeli-Lebanon war, does not buy the argument that Tuesday's killing was an attempt by Syria or its agents to scupper the upcoming UN tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, as the March 14 government forces led by Hariri's son Saad believe.

'Gemayel's murder was calculated to damage Syria and reinvigorate the waning power of the March 14 coalition which has been losing ground since Hizbullah successfully defended Lebanon against Israel,' the woman who wished not to be named says.

'The current government is dominated by supporters of American manipulation in Lebanon and is not a national unity government. Where are our representatives? The Shi'ites are 40 percent of the Lebanese population yet Hizbullah are sidelined by the Siniora government with no representation now.

'Why does no one point the finger at Israel or America in this terrible murder of Pierre Gemayel? Where is the security provided by Siniora's government? These are the questions I want answered. My home was destroyed by Israel in July, people I know were murdered by Israel in July. Why is there no UN investigation against Israel into their unlawful deaths?'

Rana Ballout, 32, a middle class Shi'ite and managing editor of luxury brand magazine Bespoke, was equally dismayed by Thursday's demo.

'I think the murder of Gemayel has to be investigated first before any accusations are made. But Prime Minister Siniora's government has not managed to put together any findings into the deaths of any of the five political figures who have been assassinated under their watch since 2005. How can Syria be blamed so easily?' she says.

Ballout agrees with Hizbollah's line that the current government needs to go and a new national unity government must be formed with increased representation for Lebanese Shi'ites.

'With the resignation of the five Shi'ite ministers the government no longer represents the majority of the people, and over the last 18 months they have done nothing to ensure security in the country,' Ballout argues. 'They did very little really to stop the war in the summer, even going so far as to have lunch with Condoleezza Rice while Lebanese were dying in the south.'

It is actions like that which Hizbullah's supporters associate with Pierre Gemayel during the Israel-Lebanon war in July and August. They ask where was he when the people in the south were being killed by Israel. Over 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed in the war.

Like many Hizbullah supporters Ballout is of the opinion that the real people who benefit from Pierre Gemayel's death are Fouad Siniora's government and the March 14 forces.

'Those that benefited were certainly not Syria, Hizbullah or (Christian Presidential candidate and Hizbullah ally) Michel Aoun or any opposition party. The assassination added wind to the sails of the March 14 boat - it was about to capsize - as rumours of a thaw in Syrian-US relations were starting to spread after Syria's overtures to Iraq in the last few days,' she says. 'Now the government is boosted.'

Despite these strong opinions there are Shi'ites who find themselves in the middle, not pro-March 14 but not pro-Hizbullah either.

'I was on the streets today (Thursday) to protest against the continuing method of using political assassinations. It must stop,' says Tarek El Zein, 27, a research analyst with mobile telephone company MTC in Beirut.

'But I believe in Siniora's government. It has not underachieved as Hizbullah claim. It has not been allowed to function properly with the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and Hizbullah working against it. The Siniora government, with all its defects, is unjustly being hijacked,' El Zein says.

'All the people who have been assassinated since Prime Minister Hariri was killed in February 2005 have unfortunately been outspoken critics of Syria, including Pierre Gemayel. Is that a coincidence? Maybe but maybe not.'

Thursday, November 23, 2006

November 23, 2006: Lebanon's Day

Picture taken on November 23, 2006 from the An-Nahar offices.

This is our day. Not that of the March 14 coalition, nor that of the March 8 coalition! This is the day when Lebanon shouts to the criminals:
"Enough. Lebanon will not die today, it will not die tomorrow. No bombs or bullets from Israeli, Syrian or Iranian regimes will ever bring us down."
It is time for all Lebanese, from all religions and all sides to join hands to uphold and save our bleeding Lebanon.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Analysis from fellow blogger CC

'This is the most panicked I've seen Lebanon'


· Killing could be attempt to bring down government
· Christian leader predicted murder of three ministers

Brian Whitaker, Clancy Chassay in Beirut and Hugh Macleod in Damascus
Wednesday November 22, 2006
The Guardian

Amid all the destruction that Lebanon has witnessed over the years, the bulletholes in the window of Pierre Gemayel's car yesterday seemed almost insignificant - but their consequences may be tremendous.
"This is the most panicked I have ever seen Lebanon," said 27-year-old Habib Batah as anxious Beirut residents left work early, causing huge traffic jams.

Pierre Gemayel, the young industry minister assassinated as he drove through Jdeideh district, was the sixth public figure to be targeted since the explosion that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 20 others in February last year.


Article continues

Mr Gemayel's death comes at a time of political tension unprecedented since the Lebanese civil war, and inevitably fingers are being pointed, once again, at Syria, the meddlesome neighbour accused of trying to destabilise the country.
At 34, Mr Gemayel was by no means among the most important or prominent of politicians - though that, perversely, may have made him an easier target. His real significance, as often in Lebanese politics, lay in his family name: he was the son of a former president, Amin Gemayel, and grandson of the late Pierre Gemayel, founder of the Christian Phalange party.

The immediate question is what impact his death will have on the anti-Syrian government led by Fouad Siniora. His cabinet was severely weakened earlier this month by the resignation of six ministers, including all five Shia members, and the Shia Hizbullah movement has been threatening to topple it.

With yesterday's killing, Mr Siniora lost a seventh minister. If nine are absent, cabinet meetings become inquorate - triggering the government's collapse. A few days ago Samir Geagea, a Christian leader, warned that three ministers might be assassinated to achieve just that. With Mr Gemayel's death, his prophecy seems to have been partly confirmed.

All this comes at a critical moment for Lebanon as it strives to recover from the month-long bombardment by Israeli forces triggered by a border incident last July when Hizbullah's militia seized two Israeli soldiers.

The government is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid for reconstruction and has been hoping to kickstart the economy with new investment, but these efforts could be stymied if the political uncertainties continue.

Though there is no hard evidence so far as to the motive for Mr Gemayel's killing, there were few yesterday who doubted that it was political - though bombs rather than bullets are the usual method in Lebanese assassinations. As in the 14 other attacks since the Hariri assassination, many immediately suspected a Syrian connection - though Syria has denied involvement and the attacks are all subjects of a UN investigation.

Following the Hariri assassination, Syria came under intense international pressure which forced it to withdraw from Lebanon, and the Bush administration - which earlier imposed sanctions on Damascus - made threatening noises.

Syrian observers argued that killing Mr Gemayel would not serve the interests of Damascus. "Syria has a lot to lose by killing Gemayel," said Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Syria Report. "Damascus has the upper hand in Lebanon now after nearly a year without any assassinations and Hizbullah are getting stronger by the day."

Essam Dari, deputy editor of Tishreen, a government daily, said the assassination would hurt Syria's interests. "This crime comes at a time when the US and Europe are considering reopening talks with Syria," he said. "Like the Hariri killing, Syria will be badly affected."

One theory advanced yesterday is that in the wake of the Republicans' midterm electoral defeat, and with George Bush's Iraq policy in tatters, Syria may be feeling sufficiently emboldened to turn up the heat in Lebanon again.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah - the main representative of Lebanon's marginalised Shia population and a key ally of Syria - has also been emboldened by the war with Israel. Basking in the kudos of its claimed military "victory", it is now seeking to assert itself more in Lebanese politics.

The sectarian breakdown of Lebanon's population is so sensitive that no official figures have been released since 1932, but there is little doubt that Christians - who once accounted for around 50% - are declining, while the Shia have been increasing. According to some estimates, the Shia may have reached 40%. Under the constitution, any group that can command more than 30% of cabinet posts has a veto on government decisions - which, in effect, would hand power to Hizbullah.

Hit list

Major political attacks in Lebanon during the last two years:

· February 14 2005 Former prime minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a bombing.

· June 2 2005 Anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir, killed by a car bomb.

· June 21 2005 Anti-Syrian politician George Hawi, killed by a car bomb.

· July 12 2005 Deputy prime minister and defence minister Elias Murr, survives car bombing in Beirut.

· September 25 2005 Prominent television anchorwoman May Chidiac of the leading anti-Syrian TV station LBC, loses an arm and a leg from a car bomb.

· December 12 2005 Prominent anti-Syrian newspaper editor and parliamentarian Gibran Tueni killed by a car bomb.

· November 21 2006 Prominent Christian politician Pierre Gemayel, shot dead by gunmen in a Beirut suburb.

Assassination triggers fresh crisis in Lebanon

Assassination triggers fresh crisis in Lebanon


Clancy Chassay in Beirut and Julian Borger in Washington
Wednesday November 22, 2006
The Guardian


Furious supporters of prominent anti-Syrian Christian politician Pierre Gemayel, who has been assassinated in a suburb of Beirut, raise aloft posters of Gemayel in Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP


Lebanon lurched closer to a fresh round of sectarian bloodletting yesterday with the assassination of its industry minister, Pierre Gemayel, a member of the country's most powerful Christian family and a leading opponent of Syrian influence.
The killing shook Lebanon's beleaguered government and sent tremors across the Middle East, further complicating attempts to find a regional solution to the Iraq war. The Bush administration, under pressure to negotiate with Syria and Iran, yesterday hinted at the responsibility of both countries' governments, accusing them of trying destabilise Lebanon.


Article continues

Speaking at an air force base in Hawaii, the US president, George Bush, called for a full investigation and pledged US support for Lebanon's government leaders and their efforts "to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies, to foment instability and violence in that important country".
In Beirut, Maronite Christian crowds tried to march on the residence of the president, Emile Lahoud, who they revile for his ties to Damascus.

Clashes also broke out between Christians and the police near the hospital where Mr Gemayel's body was taken after being shot in his car on a busy street. Outside the hospital, the dead man's father, the former president Amin Gemayel, appeared to stagger under the shock of the death of an heir who had widely expected to take over the mantle of the Phalange movement that his family helped found.

"My son died for a cause," he said. "I want all those who loved my son to keep that cause alive."

Yesterday's killing was the latest in a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, which many fear may be the opening salvos in a new cycle of political violence.

Mr Gemayel's car was rammed by another vehicle before a gunman walked up to him and opened fire at close range, hitting him in the head and torso and wounding his bodyguards.

The assassination came at a time of high political tension. Mr Gemayel and other ministers had just approved an international tribunal to judge those responsible for an earlier assassination, the February 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri - a killing in which Syrian officials have been implicated by a UN investigation.

Last night, the UN security council approved plans for a special court to try suspects in the Hariri assassination.

In the days preceding this latest death, pro-Syrian politicians had walked out of the government led by Fouad Siniora, while Hizbullah, a Shia movement backed by Syria and Iran, was threatening street protests to bring down the government.

News of the killing spread across Beirut as Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered prime minister and the leader of the anti-Syrian coalition, was giving a press conference to reject Hizbullah's demands and restate his support for the formation of an international tribunal into his father's killing.

Mr Hariri said "the hands of Syria are all over the place" in Mr Gemayel's assassination, and argued that Damascus was prepared to do anything to stop a tribunal. Syrian troops left Lebanon under a UN-negotiated deal after Hariri's assassination, but Damascus is still thought to wield considerable influence through its allies and secret service.

In Washington, the killing appeared likely to strengthen the hands of those in the administration, led by the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who oppose negotiations with Syria or Iran over Iraq. The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, went further than Mr Bush in linking Syria and Iran to the killing.

"The White House warned about two weeks ago that Syria and Iran, acting through Hizbullah, might be on the verge of an attempted coup d'etat in Lebanon. One has to wonder whether this despicable assassination is not the first shot," Mr Bolton said.

Syria's ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, rejected the allegations. "We are part of the solution, not part of the problem," he said. Mr Gemayel's killing came as Syria and Iraq restored diplomatic ties for the first time since 1982, and before a summit involving Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi leaders, to discuss Iraq.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The "real" fighting begins

This article by the NYT highlights probably Lebanon's most crucial moment in recent times. It is the fight between Iran and the USA over who controls the smallest country in the area. And we stand smack in the middle...still emotionally recuperating from the summer 'heat'.
mrtez

By Michael Slackman
The New York Times
November 5, 2006

BEIRUT: Not long before the 34-day war with Israel, political groups in Lebanon aligned with the United States sat at a table with Hezbollah and tried to get it to give up its weapons and to help remove the pro-Syrian president from office.
On Monday, most of those same political leaders will sit down again, but this time the issues of Hezbollah's weapons and the president's tenure are not even on the agenda.
Instead, having proclaimed itself the victor in the summer war with Israel, the tables have turned. Hezbollah is pressing its case for effective control of the government and a new election law - warning that if it does not have its way, it will move to bring down the government and force a new parliamentary election.
On one level, this is a parochial fight over who runs a Mediterranean nation of four million people. But Lebanon has long been a proxy chessboard in the great global game of geopolitics, its people often finding their own interests subjugated to the interests of more powerful foreign nations.
Hezbollah, an ally of Iran and Syria, has been emboldened. The U.S.-backed coalition in control of the government is on the defensive. The outcome of the tug- of-war could have lasting impact on the international order - boosting or slowing Iran's ascent in the region, buttressing or undermining Syria's leadership.
"We are now calling for unity and accord, not for score-settling and vengefulness," Hezbollah's general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a recent appearance on his party's Al Manar television. "We are suggesting a national unity government in a positive spirit."
But his call has not been received that way. It has been described by the governing coalition as a "coup d'état" and has raised fears of possible violence.
"They are making a profit from the strength of their guerrilla force to come into the capital and to pressure the political apparatus, to impose their will on the government," said Amine Gemayel, a former president and leader of the small Christian Phalange party, part of the governing coalition. "I am quite anxious about this meeting."
Hezbollah's demands, including veto power over cabinet decisions, are the latest development in a constant jockeying for power between political groups organized along religious lines. While over the generations, power has essentially shifted from Sunni Muslims, to Christians, and now, perhaps to the long-neglected Shiite Muslims - often with political alliances between the different factions - the conflict has underscored the combustible nature of a system that demands allegiance to sects and promises each of Lebanon's 18 sects an equal say in decision-making.
"In many ways it is a system of coexistence, of compromise," said Walid Sharara, an opinion writer with the newspaper Al Akhbar. "But it is also, in a way, a cold civil war. In order for sectarian elites to maintain their power, they have to incite sectarianism."
The political fight has complicated efforts at rebuilding, a task already complicated by its balkanized population. There are effectively no true political parties in Lebanon. Sunni Muslims belong to a Sunni Muslim party. Shiites to a Shiite party. Druse to a Druse party. Christians to a Christian party.
Lebanon is a state built on a promise that all sects will share power, that Muslims and Christians will each control half the Parliament. The president must be a Christian. The prime minister a Sunni. The speaker of the parliament a Shiite. Public loyalty is to sect leaders - and not the state.
Khaled Arab, 53, a Sunni Muslim, lives in the largely Druse and Christian village of Choueifat, about 45 minutes outside of Beirut. The village square and shops sport pictures of Druse leaders, such as Walid Jumblatt. But when Arab's father had a heart attack, he turned for help to Saad Hariri, the leader of the largest party representing Sunni Muslims. "The leader of my sect looks after my interests," he said. "This applies to all other sects, too. This is how the country is and there is nothing we can do about it."
There is fear now that the latest fight will spill into the streets, that Hezbollah will hold true to its threat and call its supporters to demonstrate if it does not get its way. Many fear that could spark violence.
"The reality is the country is not changeable," said Timur Goeksel, the former long-time spokesman for UN forces in Lebanon. "If you push too hard, it will collapse. Let's keep what we have and not shoot at each other."
Hezbollah says it wants a national unity government that would drain power from the so-called March 14th coalition, which is backed by the United States. Nasrallah has been forceful and threatening in making his demands.
"We can instigate civil disobedience, topple the government, and bring about early elections," he said in his television appearance. "But we are not threatening to do this, so don't scare us with talk of civil strife or civil war, since neither of these is a possibility."
In concrete terms, it is impossible to say if Hezbollah has emerged stronger or weaker from the war with Israel. Polls show it has the most public support, but even political analysts here acknowledge it is impossible to truly trust any assessment in a country where it appears no one is a neutral observer.
Hezbollah has gained strength from its alliance with General Michel Aoun, leader of a large Christian party. But it is impossible to know if General Aoun has maintained or lost support of his followers for having forged an alliance with Hezbollah.
"Hezbollah is now drawing support from Christians," said Abdo Saad, director of the Beirut Center for Research and Information. "That was not thinkable before the war."
But Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at American University in Beirut said, "Hezbollah thinks if there is an election now, they will win a majority. Absolutely not."