Bombing in Beirut Caps Day of Violence in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon was rocked by violence today with dozens killed in fighting in the country’s north and a car bomb in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut that killed one person and wounded up to a dozen.

The day started with clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group, Fatah al-Islam, which the Lebanese government says is backed by Syria and shares an ideology with al Qaida. At least 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed in fighting that lasted through much of the day.

But by the time calm had been imposed up north, a car bomb shattered windows and collapsed a building in the east Beirut neighborhood of Acrafiyeh. Reports say a woman was killed and about a dozen wounded.

The bomb was placed in a car lot next to the popular ABC Achrafiyeh mall, and the timing of the blast — at 11:40 p.m. — suggested that its intent was to cause panic and fear among the crowd exiting the movie theaters at the mall.

“It was just to scare people,” said a man in the car lot who declined to be identified. “If they really wanted to cause damage, they would have put it in the parking garage.”

As the AP reports:

The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide, and police said the explosives were estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The blast — heard across the city — gutted cars, set vehicles ablaze and shattered store and apartment windows.

Hamid and Claudine Saliba, both 39, live across the street from the parking lot where the car exploded.

“In Lebanon, you expect anything,” said Claudine, and after today’s violence up north, she and her husband were on guard. “But not in Achrafiyeh!”

They spoke from Hamid’s mother’s home, which is two doors down from their own, and the devastation in the house was near total. Graceful Ottoman windows jambs were ripped from the walls and heavy doors torn from their hinges. Luckily for Hamid, his mother had left the house on vacation two days previously, so there were no injuries.

This is the latest in a string of car bombs that many in Lebanon suspect is aimed at destabilizing the country so that Syria can re-impose its hegemony it enjoyed for 29 years.

Initially welcomed as protectors during Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, Syrian maintained an iron control over Lebanon after the war ended, effectively occupying it from 1990-2005, when it withdrew its troops. The withdrawal was forced upon Damascus following massive popular protests, which the Lebanese call the “independence uprising,” in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blame Syria for that killing and the waves of violence that have followed.

Lebanon has been on a knife’s edge since December of last year when Hezbollah and its allies, who support Syria, pulled out of the government in protest over legislation forming an international tribunal that would handle the Hariri case. Syria and its supporters vehemently oppose the tribunal, forcing the Lebanese government to petition the United Nations to impose the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning it does not require Lebanese parliamentary approval. The tribunal is widely expected to indict high-level members of the Syrian regime, including the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Tonight’s bombing — which may or may not be tied to the fighting in the north — could be seen as a message that Syria’s agents in Lebanon are prepared to unleash more violence if the tribunal is imposed on Lebanon.

Jumblatt shoots his mouth off

BEIRUT — Well, this is just great. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said that reconciliation with Hezbollah was “impossible” because the Shi’ite militant group wants to replace the current pluralist state and society of Lebanon.
This is bunk. I have my criticisms of Hezbollah, but they don’t want to take over the whole country. For one, they don’t want the responsibility. They want to be a resistance movement fighting the Israelis; they don’t want to be in charge of filling potholes in Tariq el-Jdeide. They want enough power within the current system to guarantee the south remains theirs, so they can move freely in and out of it and keep their weapons, which is the real base of their power. Does anyone think Iran and Syria would continue to finance them if they weren’t such an effective tool against Israel? If Hezbollah had no weapons, then they have no money. If they have no money, they have no ability to support their social services, which are a strong draw to Lebanon’s poorer Shi’ite population. Without that loyalty, they’re nothing — and Hezbollah knows it. As Hezbollah sees it, they _have_ to protect their weapons if they want to remain politically viable.
But back to Jumblatt (or “Jumbo” as he’s affectionately know to local journalists). He’s long had a reputation as a dial-a-quote politician/warlord, but he represents one of the smallest communities in Lebanon. (Druze make up maybe 5 percent of the population.)
What’s dangerous about his comments, however, is that he’s listened to by the rank and file of March 14, and his comments can harden attitudes to any kind of compromise — which is sorely needed these days. Hezbollah ain’t going away, and it has to be integrated into the Lebanese political system somehow — fully and nonviolently. Jumblatt’s comments make that more difficult.
At any rate, his comments came in the wake of the disturbing discovery of two caches of explosives and detonation fuses scattered around Beirut and the rest of the country. Perhaps someone was just trying to dump them, but it’s set the place on edge. Careless comments from political leaders are not the best way to calm the situation.

Two buses blown up in Christian area

Bombs destroyed two commuter buses today in the small Christian community of Ain Alaq, in the mountains north of Beirut. Was this Syria? Hezbollah? CIA? (A Hezbollah spokesman said it was the latter.) Was it a warning to the March 14 coalition not to attend the big rally planned for downtown tomorrow to mark the two-year anniversary of Hariri’s death?

BEIRUT — Bombs destroyed two commuter buses today in the small Christian community of Ain Alaq, in the mountains north of Beirut.
Reports of fatalities varied, but ranged from three (Red Cross, security forces) to 12 (LBC and other media sources.) Ten to 20 were wounded. The first bomb was apparently attached to the undercarriage of the first bus while the second was in a back seat on the second, according to my fixer, who is trying to find more info. I’ll update if this changes.
The wounded were civilians possibly traveling to work, marking a change in the “two-year campaign of bombings and assassinations”:http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L13582123.htm that has wracked Lebanon since the killing of Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005. Before, the attacks were either targeted assassinations of well-known anti-Syrian politicians and journalists or small bombs exploded in buildings late at night so as to minimize casualties. This seems aimed at Iraq- or Israel-style terror. Random, anywhere, pitiless.
Details are still emerging, but speculation is rampant. Was this Syria? Hezbollah? CIA? (A Hezbollah spokesman said it was the latter.) Was it a warning to the March 14 coalition not to attend the big rally planned for downtown tomorrow to mark the two-year anniversary of Hariri’s death?
One intriguing connection is to Elias Murr, Lebanon’s defense minister. The buses originated in Bteghrin, the home of the Murr family — they’re the major clan there — and some have wondered if this could be a response to Murr’s “refusal last week to return a truck full of Hezbollah weapons”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6345761.stm intercepted by the Lebanese Army?
Elias Murr was the target of a failed assassination in July 2005.
I’m not convinced of that, as it would be a complete turn-around for Hezbollah, who have not (yet) turned their weapons on their fellow Lebanese — a point of pride for the group.
Also, the attack happened near Bikfaya, the ancestral home of the Gemayel clan. Several of the dead were Gemayels. Lebanon’s industry minister, Pierre Gemayel “was assassinated”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/11/pierre_gemayel_has_been_assass.php in November.
Michel Murr, the defense minister’s father, was at the site of the bombing and said it was a message for all Lebanese to come together and transcend politics. That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s almost assuredly _not_ the message the bombers were trying to send.
More likely, it was a warning to March 14.
“They are trying to sabotage tomorrow’s meeting,” said Ahmad Fatfat, the former interior minister. “They are trying to divide the Christians. … The people who are doing this don’t want the people to come together and it’s another link in the chain” of assassinations.
“I cannot believe any Lebanese is capable of doing such a terrible thing,” he added.
Fatfat also said the bombs were placed on the buses yesterday, although he declined to say how he knew that.
Obviously, Fatfat is not-so-subtlely pointing the finger at Syria. A Hezbollah spokesman said the same thing, but blamed the CIA instead of Syria.
I witnessed this in Iraq, too, by the way, early in the insurgency. In 2004, when the violence was much more sporadic and rare than it is now, Iraqis would often tell me, “These bombs could not come from Iraqis. No Iraqi would hurt another Iraqi. This must be the Israelis or CIA.”
There’s always a natural tendency to believe that outsiders are the ones doing the killing. Witness the immediate reaction to the Murrah Building in 1995. Everyone immediately suspected Arab terrorism, not home-grown white supremacists.
But right now, especially on the eve of the anniversary of the killing of Hariri, everyone in Lebanon — Hezbollah, March 14, etc. — is banking on national unity for their own purposes. “Hariri was for all of us,” as many say. Other parties — Syria, especially, but possibly Israel — would love to see Lebanese at each others’ throats. Syria could use any violence as an “I told you so” excuse to intervene again, and Israel probably wouldn’t mind seeing Hezbollah on the defensive in its own country.
(Mind you, I’m not accusing Israel of today’s bombing; I’m just analyzing who might stand to gain from Lebanese discord.)
*UNRELATED (?) NEWS:* The Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the highest ranking Sunni cleric in country, claims in a press release to LBC that he was heckled and threatened by the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led March 8 protesters as he led prayers at Hariri’s grave in Martyr’s Square downtown today. He says he was told to leave or they would burn his car.
(March 8 is a coalition of mostly Shi’ite parties and some Christians, and includes Hezbollah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Christian parties of Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh. With the exception of Aoun, they are all solidly pro-Syrian. Aoun just wants to be president and will hitch his horse to whichever wagon he thinks will win.)
Also, in this morning’s _San Francisco Chronicle_, I have a story about the “rearming of the Lebanese factions.”:http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/13/MNG62O3F5U1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=001&sc=1000 It might become very relevant after today.

Beirut in flames

hard_days_work.jpg
An opposition member cradles the head of an exhausted comrade as they take a break from blocking roads in Beirut on Tuesday (c) 2007 Christopher Allbritton
BEIRUT — If there was any question whether Hezbollah was in control of the situation here following the violence of Tuesday, the fighting today should convince those that it is not, and the situation is about to be seriously out of control.
To back up a little, Tuesday’s violence seemed to shock even the leaders of Hezbollah, both because its Aounists and Amal allies behaved like hooligans, but also because the followers of Saad Hariri and Samir Geagea refused to back down and matched slogan with slogan, stick with stick, stone with stone.
At one neighborhood in Beirut, where the fighting was fiercest, the largely Sunni supporters of al-Mustaqbal chanted their support for America (in response to the chants of “Iran! Iran!” and “Bashar! Syria!” by Amal supporters across the street.) They also, bizarrely, hoisted a poster of Saddam Hussein, indicating that the Sunni-Shi’a conflict from Iraq has poisoned the atmosphere in Lebanon now, too.
This is about to be a full-on sectarian clash between Sunnis and Shi’a and within the Christian community.
That’s why Hezbollah and its allies called off their strike after a day, despite many promises by the men on the street I saw who said they would continue the strike “for days,” if necessary.
“Do you not think Hezbollah loves Lebanon?” asked Bilal, a Hezbollah supporter I spoke with as his compatriots burned a car to block the road leading the airport. “Of course we do, which is why we are prepared to stay out here for days, weeks.”
More ominously, today’s violence shows that Hezbollah no longer controls the opposition movement it created. Months of animosity over the war, the parliamentary paralysis and calls for changing the government has hardened positions among the Sunni, who increasingly see the Shi’a as responsible for last summer’s war and more loyal to Iran than to Lebanon. In short, the Shi’ite militant group has pushed its political opponents too far.
Already this has spread beyond the capital. The Lebanese Army has been deployed to Chtoura and Baalbak in the Bekaa and there are as yet unconfirmed reports that the road to old road to Sidon has been closed. By whom, we don’t know.
Four people are dead and at least 25 injured and while this flare-up might be contained, the next one appears inevitable. And next time it won’t be fought with sticks and stones.

“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling”

Here’s the latest I filed from Lebanon. “A much shorter version”:http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/index.ssf?/base/news-10/116556152129650.xml&coll=1 appeared in the _Newark Star-Ledger_, but here’s the full account:

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s capital is once again a tinderbox, ready to blow because of political rivalries exacerbated by sectarian tensions. Increasingly, the political disputes — which are ostensibly over international tribunals, presidential terms and the legitimacy of a government — have grown into religious disputes, mirroring the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites across the region.
Which leader one supporters is often determined by one’s faith. Shi’ites support the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has called for the overthrow of the current government as being too close to the United States and cutting Shi’ites out of power for too long. Sunnis, however, support the current government because it is lead by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who is a member of the Future Movement, a political party headed Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered ex-premier Rafik, who was killed in 2005.
“The political issues are sectarian,” explained Tariq Tarqawi, 20, who is, in order, a Palestinian, a Sunni and a car electrician. He lives in Ard Jalloul, a mainly Sunni neighborhood that abuts the mainly Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut. “They love Nasrallah, we love Hariri.”
It’s a political crisis that has come to a head in the past week, with hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian supporters filling downtown Beirut and street clashes between Sunni and Shi’ite youths from rival neighborhoods. Nasrallah says his people will continue to demonstrate and paralyze central Beirut until the government resigns. Siniora says he’s staying. Where this ends up is anyone’s guess, but it’s already turned deadly.
Ali Ahmad Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shi’ite from the neighborhood, was killed Sunday night in fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Ard Jalloul. Details are murky, but residents say Shi’ite protesters apparently entered the neighborhood spoiling for a fight.
“If we hadn’t fought them, they would have come in here and broken everything,” said Khalid Hashem, 20, a Sunni from the neighborhood. He was, he added, a friend of Mahmoud. “The Shi’ites are known for this.”
According to others, the intruders chanted slogans and insulted Sunni religious figures.
“We could not bear it anymore,” said one woman in a pharmacy whose husband would not allow her name to be used. “I did not like Hariri and I had nothing against the Shi’ites, but now things are changing. This is not a political demonstration anymore.”
Both Shi’ite and Sunni partisans blame the other side for the shooting, but the question remains: Who killed Ali Ahmad Mahmoud?
The situation is so knife-edge balanced that the head of Lebanese army warned that his forces were being strained to the breaking point as they tried to cope with the security downtown and maintain calm through the tenser neighborhoods of the city. If the protests continued, or worse, turned more violent, the army would be unable to cope, he said.
On Monday, Mahmoud’s body was taken down to the demonstration surrounding the Grand Serail, the old Ottoman fortress that serves as the prime minister’s office and now, the sleeping quarters for a significant portion of Siniora’s cabinet.
The sight of Mahmoud’s coffin brought a fresh surge of fury at the government and protestors crowded around the ambulance carrying it. Many carried signs proclaiming Mahmoud a martyr. “Martyred at the hands of the government’s militias,” read one.
Almost gone were the initial political considerations that had brought the hundreds of thousands into downtown Beirut: the international tribunal, presidential terms and Shi’ite representation. Monday was a day of mourning and passion.
“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling,” chanted the protestors. “Death to Siniora.”
Downtown Beirut is a tent city, with the canvas constructions lined up below the Grand Serail, like many a besieging army has done over the centuries in this part of the world. At any hour, chanting protestors crowd up against coils of concertina wire while Lebanese Army and Hezbollah discipline men keep them relatively at bay.
For Iman Fakhiya, 29, from the Shi’ite town of Taibe in the south, this protest is simply a matter of fairness for the Shi’ites, who have traditionally been the underdogs in Lebanon.
Hezbollah gained support in the south because the government in Beirut rarely provided services to the rural and impoverished South and Bekaa Valley, the homelands for the country’s Shi’ites. And over 23 years, since its formation in 1982, it has softened its Islamic rhetoric, and now provides for Shi’ites when the government doesn’t, such as schools and hospitals, and defends them when the elite of Lebanon won’t. Even today, on online forums revolving around events in Beirut, supporters of the government often talk of the Shi’ites downtown as “scum” and dirty outsiders.
“I think my parents’ generation accepted this but we won’t,” she said. “They want to keep us down. We just want our rights. Why is the presidency for the Christians and the prime ministership for the Sunnis?”
For her, it is only a matter of time, literally. She would stay for as long as it takes, she said, no matter how uncomfortable she was.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said as she pulled the blanket tighter. “We’ve been hurting for a long time. We are used to it.”

Also, I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks, so postings will be infrequent. I hope things don’t get out of control here.
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