Lebanese critic of Syria assassinated in bombing

Hawi joins growing list of Damascus opponents killed or hurt in attacks

June 22, 2005|By Megan K. Stack and Rania Abouzeid | Megan K. Stack and Rania Abouzeid,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Anti-Syria critic and former Communist Party leader George Hawi was assassinated yesterday morning by a bomb attached to the underside of his Mercedes, just days after Lebanon elected its first legislature independent of Syrian control in decades.

Hawi joins a growing string of Syria opponents killed or injured by car bombs in recent months. The blast yesterday was similar to the bombing that killed prominent anti-Syria journalist Samir Kassir on June 2.

Syria, which until recently kept thousands of troops in Lebanon and wielded control here, denounced the attack on Hawi. But politicians who have reported Syrian meddling were quick to blame Damascus and its remaining proxies in the Lebanese government for the attack yesterday.

"It's the Lebanese security system, the remnants; the [Syrian] tutelage," Farouk Dahrouj, who was also a leader of the Communist Party, told New TV.

Hawi, 65, was driving about 10 a.m. on a small side street lined with shops when a bomb planted beneath the passenger seat of his car was detonated, echoing through the middle-class and mainly Muslim neighborhood in West Beirut.

Hawi's wife dashed into the street from her nearby ophthalmology clinic, reached the scene of the bombing and fainted. His driver was wounded, bloodied and hysterical. He struggled to pull Hawi from the car and screamed his name.

The attack brought a fresh sense of despair to Lebanon, where political leaders have been struggling to rid the country of Syria's influence. Any cautious optimism generated by the elections has been washed out by this month's assassinations and a resurgence of sectarian tensions.

"It's an arbitrary killing. It's a vengeful killing," said Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese lawyer. "It's a message: `If you think that Lebanon is out of the woods and starting on a new era of democracy and independence, you're wrong. We're still here.'"

The assassination yesterday also sharpened fears that Syrian agents or allies remain active inside Lebanon, blending into the scenery long after the April withdrawal of soldiers and the shuttering of Syrian intelligence offices.

"We are stunned," Prime Minister Najib Mikati told reporters. "With every achievement by the Lebanese state, we see that there are those who want to target security and send messages of this sort."

En route to Brussels, Belgium, for a conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States had no information on who carried out the assassination, but she accused Syria of contributing to an atmosphere of instability.

"I don't know who is responsible for this ... but there is a context and an atmosphere of instability," she told reporters hours after the assassination while traveling to a conference on Iraq in Brussels. "Syria's activities are part of that context and a part of that atmosphere, and they need to knock it off."

Hawi was head of the Lebanese Communist Party during the 15-year civil war that sputtered to an end in 1990. During the long years of sectarian slaughter, the Greek Orthodox politician's predominantly Christian militia teamed up with leftist Muslims and Palestinians to battle against rival Christian militias that were allied with Israel.

The attack came just as Saad Hariri, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, had burst to popularity with promises to steer Lebanon out of the shadow of Syrian control. Hariri, a 35-year-old businessman, inherited his father's mantle as head of the Sunni Muslim community. His anti-Syria bloc swept the vote in northern Lebanon on Sunday and will control the majority of parliament.

Syria was widely blamed here for killing the elder Hariri in February with a huge truck bomb, though it denied any role.

The Lebanese government resigned early yesterday so that a new government could be appointed by parliament. Lawmakers will soon have to decide the fate of key Syria allies who remain in top posts: President Emile Lahoud and Speaker Nabih Berri.

A U.N. investigator began questioning the chief of Lebanon's Presidential Guards yesterday as part of an ongoing probe into Hariri's death. The brigade has long been seen as an instrument of Syrian control. Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, the commander and the most senior pro-Syria security chief still in power, has been accused of negligence or even participation in the attack on Hariri. His home and office were searched by U.N. investigators.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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