Cover Story

Present tense

An assassination-by-bombing prompts fears of a return to the bad old days in Beirut

Issue: "Lebanon: Democracy now," Feb. 26, 2005

The most hopeful moment for peace in the Middle East to emerge in two years lasted unblemished-for almost five days.

On Feb. 9 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas shook hands next to Sinai's clay beaches and agreed to a truce. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders promised, in Mr. Sharon's words, to "disengage from the path of blood." With Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak looking on, the moment was historic: 32 years earlier Mr. Sharon had commanded forces that took the Sinai resort area called Sharm el Sheik in the Yom Kippur War. Now Mr. Sharon promised to cease military activity against Palestinians, pull back troops from five West Bank cities in the next three weeks, and stop arrests and assassinations of militants. In exchange, Mr. Abbas promised that Palestinians will live under "one authority, one weapon, and political pluralism."

On Feb. 14 a powerful bomb ripped through downtown Beirut, killing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and leveling the bubble of optimism spreading across the region. Despite successful elections in Iraq and a handshake in the desert, peace remains table talk for the Middle East.

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For Lebanese the force of the suicide bomb in the heart of the capital's luxury hotel district lay in its symbolic value. Mr. Hariri was a popular and colorful figure, credited with rebuilding Lebanon's capital and renewing its political process after a decade of civil war. Many Lebanese viewed that conflict as more a proxy war between Israel and its Arab neighbors-particularly Syria-than a battle among the country's Christian, Druze, and Muslim militias. Mr. Hariri's death-and with it the destruction of seaside business and tourist centers newly constructed atop wartime ruins-left many fearful that their country could again become the stage for settling the scores of their neighbors.

His funeral two days later became another symbol: of growing street-level dissatisfaction with Syrian intervention. Mr. Hariri resigned his post last September to protest President Emile Lahoud's toleration of thousands of Syrian troops in the Bekaa Valley. The Hariri family rejected government offers of a state funeral and said that Mr. Lahoud and other officials were not welcome to attend.

That did not stop more than 200,000 mourners from calling for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. They poured into the streets ahead of the ceremony, held at a nearly complete mosque funded by Mr. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who made his estimated $4 billion fortune in construction work in Saudi Arabia. Men wept uncontrollably as the procession wound through streets plastered with posters of Mr. Hariri. Onlookers threw rice from balconies atop an ambulance carrying his body.

Mr. Bush issued a blunt warning to Syria in his State of the Union message: "Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region," Mr. Bush said. "We expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom." After the assassination the State Department renewed a call for Syria's withdrawal from the Bekaa Valley and recalled its ambassador from Damascus.


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