Leaders across the Middle East condemned the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, fearing it would reopen old wounds and threaten the fragile Palestinian-Israeli truce.
The massive attack in Beirut on Monday — killing 10 people, injuring 100, igniting 20 cars and shattering windows a mile away — stunned a country that has been relatively stable since civil war ended in 1990.
“The stability of Lebanon is in the interest of the Palestinians. The assassination of Hariri threatens regional security,” said Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub, who has been involved in the recent Palestinian-Israeli peace overtures.
Tension in Lebanon has been escalating since the U.N. Security Council passed a U.S. and French-sponsored resolution in September essentially calling for Syria to back off of Lebanon, a country where it has about 15,000 troops and political dominance.
Concerns over stability
After the blast, attention immediately focused on Lebanon’s stability. But in the background, many wondered about the attack’s potential impact on ongoing Arab-Israeli security talks, which so far have not included Syria and are opposed by militant groups with Syrian support.
Lebanon, largely because of Syrian influence, remains an important part of the Mideast peace equation. The Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah has been launching occasional attacks on Israeli forces in a disputed area near the Lebanese-Israeli border, and Israeli officials recently accused the group of plotting to assassinate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to scuttle a fragile truce.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, apparently referring to Syrian influence in Lebanon, said “many innocent people lost their lives because they have a state within a state, an army within an army and respect for life is not high enough.”
Jordan has been pressing for the resumption of the peace talks and government spokeswoman Asma Khader said the attack affects “Lebanon’s security and stability and that of the region.”
A 'red flag'
Numerous regional governments rushed to condemn the attack. Much of the attention in Lebanon turned to Hezbollah and Syrian security forces to see if the attack signaled a stand against the Mideast truce or a hardening insistence on Syrian domination of Lebanon. Lebanese opponents of Syria’s role in their country quickly blamed Damascus.
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told the pan-Arab television station Al-Arabiya that the attack “isn’t only directed at Hariri but is targeting the Lebanese situation and the whole regional situation.”
“I ask God to protect and preserve Lebanon from the dangerous slide (into violence), and that the Lebanese government can quickly bring things back to normal,” Allawi said, in reference to the chaos of country’s 15-year sectarian civil war.
“Any disturbances in the neighborhood will negatively affect the situation in Iraq,” he added.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement that he hoped “this bloody assassination attempt will not be a return to the days of civil war in Lebanon,” and described the bombing as a “red flag, a warning signal.”
Assad urged Lebanese “to strengthen their national unity and oppose those who are seeking to sow divisions among the people,” according to SANA, Syria’s official news agency.
Militants condemn 'cowardly assassination'
Hezbollah and Syrian President Hafez Assad condemned the attack, along with Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Islamic Jihad called the attack a “cowardly assassination” and said only the U.S. and Israel would benefit.
In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi condemned the bomb as “an act of terrorism.” He urged the Lebanese people to stay “watchful” about “plots of the enemies” of their country, state-run television reported.
Lebanese opposition leaders gathered after Hariri was killed and issued a statement demanding Syrian troops withdraw from Lebanon within the next three months and calling on the international community to intervene to help “this captive nation.”
“We hold the Lebanese authority and the Syrian authority, being the authority of tutelage in Lebanon, responsible for this crime and other similar crimes,” they said in their statement read by legislator Bassem Sabei, a member of Hariri’s parliamentary bloc.