Murder Beirut-style

February 17, 2005

WHAT WAS Rafik Hariri's crime?

Leading Lebanon out of the rubble of a 15-year civil war? Transforming its gutted capital Beirut into a glittering gem on the Mediterranean? Opposing a Syrian-backed constitutional amendment that extended the term of the president, a political rival favored by Damascus? Nothing in his public life should have marked him for death. But neither his prominence nor his billion-dollar fortune saved the former prime minister. His assassination this week is a hideous reminder of the volatility of Mideast politics.

The explosion that killed Mr. Hariri, a construction magnate who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, and 14 others blew an excavation-size hole in Beirut's revitalized waterfront and rocked Lebanon's political stability. It opened Syria to vociferous criticism of its military presence in Lebanon and sharp demands for removal of its 15,000 troops. Syria has protested its innocence, but Mr. Hariri's death has provoked as vigorous protests against Damascus. Many at Mr. Hariri's funeral yesterday held aloft banners demanding Syria leave.

The assassination was a clear attempt to intimidate Lebanese who want an end to Syrian influence in the country's affairs. But the public outcry at Mr. Hariri's murder is an encouraging sign that the fractious Lebanese can come together as Lebanese in pursuit of a free Lebanon. Syria has remained in Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990, reneging on its agreement to remove its troops within two years. It's time for them to go.

The United Nations' condemnation of the Hariri attack and the United States' withdrawal of its ambassador to Syria are protests with limited potency. The United States can do little more to toughen its economic sanctions against Syria, imposed for not aggressively fighting terrorist elements within the country or clamping down on support to Iraqi insurgent groups. But if Syria is found complicit in Mr. Hariri's death, the United Nations should sanction Damascus.

The danger here is that a destabilized Lebanon could provoke problems in the region, especially if Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in the south renew attacks against Israel and disrupt progress with the Palestinians. A decision by Syria and Iran to form a "common front" to "confront threats" will only further isolate Damascus in the international community.

In the coming weeks, the Lebanese should resist any impulse to resume the intra-ethnic fighting that fueled their civil war. They can strike a greater blow against Syrian domination if they register their disgust at the ballot box in the spring elections. That would be a fitting memorial to Mr. Hariri, who used his personal and political capital in pursuit of a free and prosperous homeland.

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