Hussein Malla  /  AP
Supporters of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri ride through the streets of Beirut on Tuesday.
By Tom Aspell Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/15/2005 2:18:05 PM ET 2005-02-15T19:18:05

Lebanon is in a period of mourning after a massive car bomb killed the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Tuesday. The attack has raised fears that Lebanon might revert back to the political violence that characterized the country during the 1975-1990 civil war.

NBC News Tom Aspell reports from Beirut on what the political climate in wake of the horrific attack.

What is the response to the U.S. move to recall its ambassador to Syria?

For many people here it is the first indication that the U.S. knows something about Syrian involvement in the assassination attempt. It is just the first step in international pressure that will be brought to bear on Syria with a view to getting it to pull their troops out of the country and adhere to the U.N. resolution.

It's the first step in what’s going to be a series of measures against Syria aimed at having Damascus stop interfering in Lebanon’s political affairs.

What is the situation in the city a day after the bombing?
Right now, Lebanon is in the middle of three days of mourning. Everything is locked up tight — shops are closed, businesses, banks, everything is closed. There are occasionally cars driving around with posters of Rafik Hariri on them.

There are also condolences being paid at Hariri’s house, where his son and his wife are receiving mourners, and many hundreds of people have turned up there, including government officials and foreign dignitaries and ambassadors who have been passing in and out all day.

The funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, but right now the emphasis is on trying to find out who is responsible for the attack. The finger of suspicion, of course, is pointing at Syria at the moment. People here in Beirut are talking about nothing else.

There is also a great deal of fear about what is going to happen next. Many people are guessing that this could be a return to the bad days of the civil war, which fractured the country.

Right now, people are focusing on if Syria is to blame, than what will the international community do to punish it? There have been calls from France, in particular, for an international investigation into the assassination to find out who is responsible.

I think, people, with some degree of trepidation, fear that there may be evidence linking Syria to this crime and are wondering what steps will be taken to punish it.

How great are the fears that this attack will revert Lebanon back to the political violence which dominated the country from 1975-1990?
This was the second biggest car bomb here in the last six months. Fifteen years ago when the civil war was at its height, car bombs were an almost-daily occurrence. I think for a lot of older people here, it’s reminded them just how dark those days were. There is a great deal of fear here.

I was talking to some young people this morning, and many of them said, “This place is hopeless.” Many of them are trying to think of a way to get out, to study abroad or to find jobs outside the country. That’s always been Lebanon’s problem.

Hariri was the mastermind and the chief financier of the reconstruction of Lebanon. So, it’s got the business community worried, too. Now that the man with the money is dead, what will happen to the Lebanese economy? That’s certainly got people very worried as well.

Whichever way people look at it here, it signals to a great deal of uncertainty in the future. It’s not even sure whether the upcoming election will go ahead on time. People are expecting a great deal of pressure, perhaps from France and the United States, to see what can be done about that. 

There are also strong rumors that Syria that will be pressured into cracking down on some of its client militias, such as Hezbollah and some of the Palestinian groups that still function inside Lebanon.

Many people see that might be kind of a cosmetic step for Syria to agree to tighten controls on Hezbollah or on some of the militias it continues to finance and arm. I think people worry that might promote some instability as well. Trying to disarm a group as well organized and well armed as Hezbollah would not be easy and may certainly bring violence back to the capital — and that’s the last thing anybody wants at the moment.


Given his anti-Syrian views, what does Hariri’s death mean for the Syrian military presence and influence in Lebanon?
Well in fact it’s a huge blow to the opposition because, as I said, he was the highest profile Sunni politician in Lebanon. So, it’s certainly left the Sunni community in Lebanon without a recognized voice.

But, also the money that he was prepared to put into the election campaign — for the election scheduled in the spring — will now be missing.

It also has the political spectrum in Lebanon worried, because this may signal a deep period of uncertainty as to who is going to try to lead the country in the spring. The [opposition politicians] won’t have Hariri’s money, they won’t have his campaigning skills, they won’t have him as the chief spokesman for the opposition. One of the platforms for the opposition was a greater independence for Lebanon to get away from the "sisterhood" relationship it has had with Syria for so long time. At the moment, it’s a great deal of uncertainty.

How will this affect the Mideast peace process?
It all  leads toward how deeply Syria was involved in it. Syria has been the last holdout, as it were, against Israel. If there were to be pressure on Syria, then of course it’s going to be to Israel’s advantage. Coming so close to the agreement signed between the Palestinians and the Israelis, anything seen to upset the balance of that cease-fire would impact very negatively on everyone in the region.

Everybody is worried that Syria will be forced into some sort of confrontation with Israel and that would of course have repercussions across the region. That’s a big fear that people are talking about as well

Finally, Lebanon also seems to be a nation in shock. Fifteen years ago they were so used to these things, they practically ignored car bombs, despite the horrific casualties they caused. Then there was 15 years of calm. But, this has people reaching back to the old nightmares again and people are genuinely scared.

Tom Aspell is an NBC News correspondent based out of Tel Aviv. He is on assignment in Beirut, Lebanon.

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