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Car bomb kills another prominent anti-Syrian politician in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon—A prominent Lebanese politician with a history of criticizing the neighboring Syrian regime was killed in a bombing in Beirut on Tuesday, two days after an anti-Syrian alliance celebrated victory in Lebanon's parliamentary elections.

George Hawi, the former leader of the Lebanese Communist Party, died instantly from explosives placed under his car and detonated by remote control, according to authorities at the scene. Hawi's driver survived the attack, which was identical to a blast earlier this month that killed the Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, another outspoken critic of Syria's interference in Lebanon's affairs.

No suspects were in custody by late Tuesday, but many Lebanese blamed Syrian security agents for Hawi's death. The timing, the method and the target all heightened fears that Syria was bent on derailing a new Lebanese government that refuses to take orders from Damascus.

"This is a revenge against him," said Ziad Majid, a friend of Hawi's and a vice president of the Democratic Left, an anti-Syrian opposition group. Majid said the killing was a clear message that Syria does not want Lebanon rebuilt as a secular democracy. "They still want the security apparatus to rule the country and that, I think, is the major message behind this assassination."

Officials in the incoming government have said Syrian operatives remain in Lebanon despite the withdrawal of Syrian troops this spring after a 29-year military presence in the smaller, neighboring country. The Bush administration has expressed concern that Syrian agents are working their way through a hit list of anti-Syrian Lebanese figures. Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has denied any involvement in the assassinations.

The political alliance led by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who also died in a mysterious car bombing this spring, swept elections this month on a strong anti-Syrian platform. Hariri's landslide win—his bloc now holds the majority of seats in the legislature—was widely viewed as a mandate against Syria's grip on Lebanon.

"Unfortunately, we paid a very hefty price to get our freedom," Hariri told a news conference Monday.

Hawi, a Christian, had been in the background of Lebanese politics for the past few years, though he'd made recent television appearances condemning Syria's dominance of the Lebanese parliament. He led the Communist Party during Lebanon's devastating 17-year civil war, in which his men fought with Palestinian and Muslim militias against right-wing Christian factions.

The blast Tuesday morning occurred just blocks from Hawi's home in the Wata Museitbeh district of the capital. His dark blue Mercedes was charred and crumpled directly under a large campaign poster of Hariri and his late father.

Witnesses said the bombing could be heard for blocks. They said Hawi's driver stumbled from the car in flames and passersby tackled him to put out the fire. Hawi's body was ripped apart in the front passenger seat, said Wael al-Husseini, 18, a stylist in a salon right in front of the bomb scene.

"I was just standing here and then I heard the explosion," al-Husseini said. "I ran away and saw the driver screaming for help."

A crowd of politicians, authorities, journalists and stunned locals swarmed the blood-spattered car for hours after the blast. Several men and women sobbed at the scene. News reports said Hawi's widow rushed to the scene from her nearby eye clinic and fainted at the sight of her husband's body. A candlelight vigil was planned for Tuesday so that supporters could remember a man described by friends as courageous and patriotic.

Ali Mehawish, 65, watched the commotion outside his shop with fear and sadness. His own 16-year-old son died in a blast during the civil war, and the new carnage rekindled memories of the era he described as so dangerous "that a bird couldn't fly without being killed."

Mehawish wasn't among those celebrating the outcome of the elections this week. He said he's just as disenchanted with the new batch of politicians as with the old ones, and he didn't think they'd be able to stave off future attacks.

"There's nobody here doing anything for the good of this country," he said, shaking his head. "They're all liars, out for their own interests. It reminds me of the war days."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LEBANON-BOMBING

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