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Bush warns Syria after Lebanon officer’s death

President Bush Thursday condemned the assassination of a Lebanese general and warned Syria against interfering in Lebanon.
Image: Lebanese soldiers secure the site of an explosion in Christian town Baabda east of Beirut.
Lebanese soldiers secure the site of an explosion in the Christian town of Baabda, east of Beirut, on Wednesday.Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush Thursday condemned the assassination of a Lebanese general and warned Syria against interfering in Lebanon.

Bush, in a statement about this week's assassination of Brig. Gen. Francois al-Hajj, who was poised to become Lebanon's army chief, said: "As Lebanon seeks to select a president democratically and in accordance with its constitution, interference by the Syrian regime and its allies, aimed at intimidating the Lebanese people, must end."

A car bomb attack killed Hajj and his driver on Wednesday, putting even more pressure on the country’s delicate political situation.

Hajj, a top Maronite Catholic in the command, was considered a leading candidate to succeed the head of the military, Gen. Michel Suleiman, if Suleiman is elected president. Hajj, 55, also led a major military campaign against Islamic militants over the summer.

Security officials initially said the general, his driver and a bodyguard were killed, and that emergency workers were searching for a possible fourth body. But late Wednesday the officials said body parts found in the area belonged to two bodies, Hajj and his driver. Dozens of people were injured.

The blast was the first such attack against the Lebanese army, which has remained neutral in Lebanon’s yearlong political crisis and is widely seen as the only force that can hold the country together amid the bitter infighting between parliament’s rival factions.

The political divisions have paralyzed the government and prevented the election of a president, leaving the post empty since Nov. 23 in a dangerous power vacuum. Under Lebanon’s sectarian division of political posts, the president must be a Maronite, like the army commander.

Reaction from Syria, U.S.Syria denounced the attack, as it has past bombings. “We condemn this criminal act and every measure that jeopardizes Lebanon’s security and stability,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said. An unidentified Syrian official in the state news agency SANA blamed Israel for the killing.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Syria’s denunciation of the bombing was “positive” but added, “while denunciations are useful, they need to be backed up by actions.”

The killing came at a “crucial time as Lebanon seeks to maintain a democratically elected government and select a new president,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “President Bush will continue to stand with the Lebanese people as they counter those who attempt to undermine their security and freedom.”

Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, speaking to AP Television News, accused the “Syrian-Iranian axis” of hitting the military, “the only body in Lebanon who can balance the power of Hezbollah and other militias in the country.”

Syria’s ally, the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which has good relations with the army, denounced the assassination. It called Hajj’s death a “great national loss” and praised the military’s “great national role” in preserving security.

The slaying of Hajj and its timing raised immediate speculation over who was behind the bombing. Some called it a warning to the military to stay out of politics, or a Syrian attempt to wreck the presidential election or retaliation by Islamic militants for the army’s fight against them.

Al-Qaida link?
Anti-Syrian politicians blamed Damascus, as they have for a string of bombings in the past two years that killed eight prominent opponents of Syria. Damascus has denied any role in those killings.

The main Christian opposition leader, Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, told reporters that he had supported Hajj to succeed Suleiman as army commander. Aoun, a former head of the military, praised Hajj and said it was “shameful” for political forces to take advantage of the crime, a reference to the anti-Syrian groups.

Suspicion also fell on al-Qaida-inspired Sunni Muslim militants, whom the army crushed at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon in an operation led by Hajj, a battle that cost hundreds of lives.

Hikmat Deeb, a leading member of Aoun’s opposition Free Patriotic Movement, said Hajj was “a hero of Nahr el-Bared,” suggesting the battle there was a factor in the assassination.

The military refrained from laying blame, saying “the criminal hand” killed Hajj, along with “a number of soldiers, and wounded others.” It said the military was investigating.

The blast went off at 7:10 a.m. on a busy street near the Baabda Municipality building as school buses and people were setting off for work. Hajj, who lives in the area, had left his home few minutes earlier, probably for the nearby Defense Ministry, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with military rules.

A parked car packed with 77 pounds of TNT exploded, apparently triggered by remote control, as his SUV passed, blasting a crater six feet wide and three feet deep.

Bodies were thrown about 15 yards by the blast. Troops sealed off the area as firefighters put out the flames in at least two cars. The road was blackened with soot as smoke covered the area.

Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, said the attack came at a “pivotal time at which Lebanon’s enemies are seeking to consecrate the vacuum in the presidency.”

The failure to elect a president has embroiled Lebanon in its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The country has been without a president since Nov. 23 when Emile Lahoud left office and a deadlocked parliament failed to elect a successor.

Parliament is sharply divided between anti-Syrian supporters of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran.

The two sides are locked in a dispute over how to elect the army commander, Suleiman, as compromise candidate to fill the vacant presidency. His election requires a constitutional amendment because currently a sitting army commander is barred from the post.

Lebanon has been rocked by a series of explosion since a massive truck bombing killed former Premier Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005.

The last major explosion on Sept. 19 killed anti-Syrian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem on a Beirut street, an attack blamed on Syria by his supporters in the government coalition. Syria denied involvement.