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Gemayel's death provides new ammunition for all sides

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Nidal Ghilayni has no doubt about who was behind Lebanon's latest political assassination.

Much of the world has pointed the finger at Syria, but Ghilayni thinks that Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel was killed by one of his Christian allies in an attempt to bolster Lebanon's shaky pro-Western government.

"It's very clear," said the Beirut taxi driver, a Sunni Muslim. "They blame everything on Syria. If a man divorces his wife, they blame it on Syria."

From the Hezbollah strongholds of southern Beirut to the Christian neighborhood where Gemayel was gunned down, everyone has his or her own theory about who killed the young Cabinet minister. Syria. Israel. Christian rivals. The Americans.

The swirling conspiracy theories—and the fact that Gemayel's own Christian allies are at the center of one—are a reflection of how deeply 30 years of civil war, plots, assassinations and betrayal have damaged Lebanon's social fabric.

Lebanon's political crises have a way of dragging in its next-door neighbors Syria and Israel, more distant parties such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and even Europe and the United States, which has sent troops to Lebanon three times since 1958.

This time, the collapse of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's fragile coalition government would be a major setback for the Bush administration's effort to promote Middle East democracy, and a political victory by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah would rattle both Israel and Sunni Arab leaders.

Gemayel's death has provided divisive new ammunition for all sides in Lebanon's complex and ever-shifting political rivalries.

Rival factions have all used Gemayel's assassination to rally their forces as positions are hardening and fears are rising that the country is heading for another dangerous, unpredictable showdown.

"They are engaged in the politics of brinkmanship and this was an escalation," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "Someone was just pushed over the edge."

Five days after Gemayel was gunned down in broad daylight while driving through a Christian neighborhood, his bullet-riddled car remained in the middle of the street at the center of a guarded crime scene.

Gemayel became the sixth prominent Lebanese leader to be killed in a 20-month-long string of attacks that began with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine's Day 2005.

Like Gemayel's crime scene, the site of Hariri's assassination along Beirut's popular Mediterranean coastal road remains a largely untouched wreckage still awaiting answers.

The pro-Western Lebanese government propelled into power after Hariri's assassination is stepping up its efforts to establish an international court to try suspects linked to the crime.

That push has created a serious political rift that is threatening to bring down the government and spark new sectarian clashes that some worry could devolve into a deadly new civil war. The efforts to retain the country's delicate political balance were damaged by Gemayel's assassination.

To Gemayel's allies, the culprit was clear. They immediately blamed Syria, which many suspect orchestrated Hariri's assassination. That anger poured out into downtown Beirut last week as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators sought to protect Hariri's legacy by criticizing Syria and Hezbollah, which is threatening to hold its own street protests to bring down the pro-Western government.

After Gemayel's death, a lot of anger was aimed at Michel Aoun, a Christian politician known as "The General" who has aligned himself with Hezbollah.

Demonstrators tore down posters of Aoun, who was appointed prime minister by Gemayel's father, Amin, in 1988 at a time when the general supported efforts to drive Syria from Lebanon. That controversial move divided Lebanon and ended with Aoun's ouster by Syrian forces from the presidential palace in 1990.

Upon his return from 15 years in exile, Aoun formed a surprise alliance with Hezbollah, a move that divided Christians and allied the military leader with pro-Syrian forces.

In Hezbollah neighborhoods, the suspicion has focused not on Syria, Hezbollah or Aoun, but on Gemayel's own allies.

"I'm not telling you Syria is an angel," said Ali Sweid, owner of a baby clothing store in a neighborhood heavily bombarded by Israel during this summer's 34-day war. "But it's not in Syria's interest to risk this."

Sweid noted that Syria has been making very public peace overtures to Israel and America, moves that were severely undermined by the widely held suspicion that it was behind Gemayel's death.

Instead, Sweid and many others in the neighborhood suggested that the man behind the killing was Samir Geagea, a Christian ally of the Gemayel family and head of the powerful Lebanese Forces.

Geagea and Aoun were once allies in the fight to drive Syria from Lebanon but eventually split. Geagea was imprisoned for 11 years after being convicted of helping to kill Prime Minister Rashid Karami, but pardoned last year and freed five months after Hariri's assassination.

Since then, Geagea and Aoun have been vying for power and influence, especially among Lebanon's Christian community. And some Hezbollah supporters saw Gemayel's killing as a way to bolster Geagea's standing.

Since Gemayel's death became a potent rallying cry for the pro-Western government at a critical time in its attempt to quash Hezbollah's attempts to boost its political power, some Hezbollah supporters saw an even more Machiavellian plot at work.

Aziz Najdi, owner of a currency exchange store destroyed by Israel during the war, suggested that the biggest beneficiary of Gemayel's death was the government, since it was able to use the assassination to put Hezbollah on the defensive and force the group to delay its street protests.

"They were sleeping and their numbers were very small," said Najdi, who is among those eager to take part in a counterdemonstration Hezbollah is expected to call this week. "It was a benefit for them."

While Gemayel's funeral and rally provided the pro-Western forces with an emotional boost, a sense of weary defeat settled over Beirut's Christian neighborhoods in the wake of the assassination.

Just down the block from the crime scene, accounting teacher Charbel Ignatius said he is preparing to pack up his wife and daughter and move to Australia.

"I have to leave," said Ignatius. "This is not my problem. We were born in war. We live in war. Enough."

To Ignatius, all the conspiracy theories about outside forces using Lebanon as a puppet are bunk.

"Who is responsible?" he said. "All of Lebanon. And me."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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