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Lebanon braces for renewed conflict after the Gemayel assassination

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon began three days of mourning Wednesday following the assassination of an up-and-coming anti-Syrian political leader whose death became a rallying cry for the country's shaky pro-Western government.

As hundreds of anguished supporters carried Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel's flag-draped coffin through his Christian hometown in the mountains above Beirut, Lebanon's rival political factions braced for the fallout.

Gemayel's daylight assassination on Tuesday generated immediate international sympathy for Prime Minister Fuad Saniora as he tries to fend off an attempt by Hezbollah, the country's powerful Shiite Muslim Islamic group, to topple his U.S.-backed coalition government.

It also complicated Hezbollah's efforts to use its increased political stature following its 34-day war with Israel to boost its influence in the Lebanese government.

"The only winner in this is the Saniora government," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

A Hezbollah success in toppling the Saniora government would be a major setback to American efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East, and it would further unnerve Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Sunni nations worried about growing Shiite power in Iraq and Lebanon.

Until Gemayel was shot to death while driving through a Christian neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon had been preparing for a showdown between the government and Hezbollah supporters, who were expected to take their demands for more political power to the streets in protests as early as Thursday.

But Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have been forced to postpone the demonstrations and rethink their strategy. While few believe that Hezbollah played a direct role in killing Gemayel, mourners turned their anger on the militia because of its close ties to Syria, which many suspect is behind a string of political assassinations stretching back to the February 2005 death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri's death sparked a peaceful uprising that drove Syrian forces from Lebanon after years of dominating the nation's politics.

The rising anger makes it more difficult for Hezbollah to take its case to the streets. But some analysts said the group may have more to lose by backing down.

While Nasrallah has cast the protests as an attempt to boost Shiite representation in the government, skeptics view the protests as an effort to derail an international tribunal capable of prosecuting those accused of involvement in Hariri's assassination.

Last week, the Lebanese Cabinet endorsed the United Nations tribunal after six Hezbollah allies resigned from the Cabinet in an unsuccessful attempt to topple the government. On Tuesday, hours after Gemayel's assassination, the U.N. Security Council endorsed the tribunal plan and sent it back to Lebanon for government ratification.

If the tribunal is allowed to move forward, it could implicate top Syrian officials and create more pressure on Lebanon's neighbor to stop providing support for Hezbollah.

It's even possible, Khashan said, that the tribunal could compel Nasrallah to leave Lebanon to testify, a move that might make him vulnerable to arrest as the leader of a group responsible for terrorist attacks on Americans in Lebanon and on other targets around the world.

"He will lose more if he appears before the tribunal" than if he presses the street demonstrations, Khashan said.

Hezbollah officials joined national leaders in condemning the killing, but said they still planned to take their demands to the streets if they're not given the right to veto government decisions in a new Cabinet.

Mahmoud Komati, the deputy chief of Hezbollah's political division, said Wednesday that his group was dealt a setback by the assassination and implied that the killing offered a convenient political boost for Saniora's government when it was in danger of collapse.

"This project lives on blood. I call it Dracula politics," he said. "It cannot be advanced without blood."

Because Hezbollah recognizes that it could alienate its Lebanese allies if it sparks risky street protests, the group might decide to seek a compromise instead and return to negotiations, said Patrick Haenni, a senior analyst in Beirut with the International Crisis Group, an independent nonprofit that examines conflicts around the globe.

"Hassan Nasrallah knows it is a tricky move to go to the street," Haenni said. "The assassination of Pierre Gemayel is going to make them more serious about measuring the risks."

While Hezbollah is postponing its plans for demonstrations, Gemayel's funeral on Thursday in downtown Beirut is expected to serve as a political platform for the Saniora government.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to turn out, and there have been calls for mourners to march to the office of President Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Hezbollah and Syria who's opposed to the U.N. tribunal.

On Wednesday, Gemayel's father, Amin, a former Lebanese president, tacitly endorsed the move by publicly criticizing Lahoud on the eve of his son's funeral.

"There is a deep problem within the presidency, and we should replace the president," Amin Gemayel told Al Jazeera's new English-language station. "The president is the cause of a lot of the problems."

Throughout the day, Lebanese television broadcast live images of mourners greeting Amin at the family's home. Celebrations to mark the country's independence day were canceled as supporters carried Pierre Gemayel's coffin, draped in the white flag of his family's Phalangist Party, through the streets. Tomorrow, the 34-year-old Christian leader will be laid to rest alongside his uncle, Bashir, who was assassinated in 1982 weeks after he was elected president during the country's civil war.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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