BEIRUT, Lebanon—The car-bomb assassination of one Lebanon's most prominent politicians raised fears Monday that Lebanon once again would become a battleground for the country's dueling ethnic and religious groups.
An unknown Islamist group claimed responsibility for the death of Rafik Hariri, a multibillionaire businessman and former prime minister whose motorcade was blasted apart shortly before 1 p.m.
But supporters of Hariri, who resigned as prime minister last October over Syrian interference in Lebanon's affairs, blamed Syria for the bombing.
"The responsibility for the assassination is known: It begins in Damascus and passes through the Lebanese presidential palace," Marwan Hamadeh, a former Lebanese economy minister who himself survived a car bombing last October, told Lebanese television Monday.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad disavowed any involvement. He called the bombing a "horrible criminal act," according to the official Syrian news agency, SANA.
U.S. officials in Washington said they didn't know who was responsible for the killing. But they indicated that the United States will push Damascus even harder to reduce its role in Lebanon in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring.
"Whoever is behind it, it's ... another sign that Lebanon needs to be free of violence. Lebanon needs to be able to stand on its own and take care of itself," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
U.S. relations with Syria are already tense. On a trip to Europe last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said President Bush might impose additional sanctions on Syria because it's failed to police its border with Iraq and meddled in Lebanon's affairs.
The State Department's No. 2 Middle East officer, David Satterfield, last week called in the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, and warned that Damascus must comply with a United Nations resolution passed last fall demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Hariri, 60, served three terms as prime minister, first coming to power in 1992. He's generally credited with luring European investment to the war-ravaged country and re-creating Beirut as a tourist haven, especially for Arabs who no longer felt welcome in the United States and Europe following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
But he resigned last fall after the Lebanese legislature amended the constitution to allow President Emile Lahoud, who was handpicked by Syria, to stay in office an additional three years. The move was in retaliation for the joint France-U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution.
Hariri and other opposition leaders hoped to wrest power away from the pro-Syrian factions in general elections coming up in May, a strategy that was thrown into turmoil by Monday's assassination.
In a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera television network, the Islamist group said it targeted Hariri because he supported the Saudi government. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, spent two decades in Saudi Arabia, where he amassed a fortune through construction deals before returning to Lebanon after the country's 1975-90 civil war.
Forbes Magazine in 2003 estimated him to be worth $3.8 billion.
Beirut residents at first mistook Monday's explosion for a sonic boom caused by Israeli military jets that periodically buzz the area. But plumes of smoke quickly brought panic. Local newscasts showed screaming and injured passers-by staggering past flaming cars and charred buildings.
More than 650 pounds of explosives were used in the bombing, according to an unnamed security official quoted by The Associated Press. The explosion left a 30-foot crater in the street and ripped the facades off nearby buildings. At least 12 other people were killed and 100 wounded.
The Lebanese government, through its official news agency, said Hariri was dead on arrival at the American University Hospital. His body was badly burned. Several of his bodyguards were also killed.
Future TV, which Hariri owned, reported that a fellow opposition leader, former Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan, was critically wounded in the blast.
Stunned commentators and officials struggled to make sense of the assassination in a country that in the past decade has become a favorite tourist destination within the war-plagued Middle East.
"We are turning into Iraq," moaned a 62-year-old seamstress, who gave only her first name, Samira.
World leaders on Monday paid tribute to Hariri, including Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who's responsible for Lebanese affairs.
"Why target Hariri personally?" he asked on Lebanese television. "He loved people and was loved by them."
Hariri's funeral is planned for Wednesday and the government called for three days of mourning.
(Special Correspondent Moaveni reported from Beirut. Nelson reported from Jerusalem.)
EVENTS IN LEBANON
1971-72—War in Jordan sends thousands of Palestinians into refugee camps in Lebanon.
1975—Civil war erupts between the Maronite (Christian) Phalangist Party and the Lebanese National Movement. The Muslim Palestinians support the LNM while Syria supports the Maronites.
1976-77—Syria sends forces to support the Maronite party. A cease-fire is set. The Maronites reject the cease-fire and turn to Israel for help.
1978—After attacks launched by Palestinians, Israel invades southern Lebanon, creating an occupation "security zone."
1982—Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel is assassinated. Israel invades and takes control of Lebanon. Christian militiamen massacre Palestinian refugees at the Chatilla and Sabra camps. The United States, Britain, France and Italy send troops as U.N. peacekeepers in Beirut.
1983—Car bombings destroy the U.S. Embassy in April, killing 63, and a Marine barracks in October, killing 241.
1984—Peacekeeping troops are withdrawn.
1989—The so-called Taif Agreement distributes power among Lebanon's warring factions and becomes the foundation for a new government.
1992—Rafik Hariri becomes prime minister in Lebanon's first general election in 21 years. He is re-elected in 1996.
2004—Syria announces that 3,000 of its troops would withdraw from Beirut, but U.S. and France sponsor a U.N. resolution demanding that all Syrian troops leave Lebanon. Lebanese legislature extends the pro-Syrian president's term by three years. Hariri resigns from government.
Sources: Political Handbook of the U.S., University of Maryland, Facts on File
For more information on Lebanon, you may direct readers to:
U.S. Department of State: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35833.htm
(Compiled by Knight Ridder Newspapers researcher Tish Wells.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LEBANON
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050214 Beirut blast
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