Beirut blast kills prominent critic of Syria

Beirut blast kills prominent critic of Syria

Wounded — by one estimate 70 — were carried from the newly renovated downtown area of Beirut on Friday. Six people, including a prominent critic of Syria — died in the car bombing.
 BEIRUT — A powerful car bomb exploded in downtown Beirut on Friday and killed a former Lebanese finance minister who was a prominent critic of the Syrian government, further raising tensions between Lebanon’s two main political camps, already deeply divided over the war in Syria.

The former finance minister, Mohammed Chatah, was killed along with his driver and four others, and at least 70 people were wounded, the Health Ministry said.

Chatah was one of the closest advisers to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, another opponent of the Syrian leadership. Rafik Hariri’s assassination in a 2005 bombing touched off the March 14 protest movement, which helped end Syria’s 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

On Friday, Saad Hariri and his March 14 political allies quickly issued statements implying that the Syrian government or its ally Hezbollah were responsible for the bombing. It drew parallels to the killing of Rafik Hariri, for which the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon has indicted four Hezbollah operatives.

The allegations were electric in a country that is deeply divided over Syria, with Hariri’s Future bloc, the main Sunni party, backing the opponents of President Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and Lebanon’s most powerful political party, supporting him.

Syria’s conflict has already touched Lebanon. Street fighting has erupted in the northern city of Tripoli. Car bombings in the southern suburbs of Beirut have been widely blamed on Syrian insurgents or their backers. Hezbollah has sent its fighters into combat alongside Syrian forces and has accused the Future bloc of backing Lebanese militants supporting the insurgency in Syria.

In such a climate, Lebanese politicians on both sides of the divide said the country could ill afford the loss of Chatah, 62, who was also a former ambassador to the U.S. He was regarded even by opponents as a moderate who could foster dialogue across political and sectarian lines, and he was taking part in talks to end a political impasse that has left Lebanon without a functioning government for months.

Hezbollah condemned the attack as an attempt to sow divisions in Lebanon, and its leaders, along with Syrian officials, called the allegations against them dangerous and irresponsible.

From 2005 to 2008, long before the conflict in Syria, Lebanon was riven by a political struggle, which included numerous assassinations of mainly anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. That conflict pitted Hezbollah and its Syrian allies against the Hariri group of pro-Western politicians.

Today, those divisions have been magnified by the war in Syria and the larger regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that helps fuel it.

The bombing Friday morning was the first to mar Beirut’s shiny renovated downtown since Rafik Hariri’s murder, which occurred nearby. It dealt a blow to a perennially resilient city and left the business district, normally bustling and sparkling with Christmas decorations, oddly silent.

“This is a time when this plaza would be crowded, full of hope and colors, and now it’s black with this criminal act,” said Elie Ward, the manager of the Sultan Ibrahim restaurant, watching as investigators examined a charred car chassis. “But Beirut is sending a message to all the world, that she will stay alive.”

Chatah, an economist, had served as ambassador to the U.S. from 1997 to 2000, had worked at the International Monetary Fund and had been a spokesman for the Lebanese government. Born in Tripoli, he was married, with two children.

On his blog he recently warned that Assad could never reform or restore stability to Syria, and that his ally Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, would prefer a prolonged and spreading war to letting him fall. That, he wrote, “will help terrorism flourish even more. Both the kind manipulated and used by the regime to blackmail the West and the ‘authentic’ strain that festers and spreads in open wounds, like opportunistic parasites.”

In his last Twitter message Friday morning, less than an hour before he was killed, he criticized Hezbollah, saying it sought the same “powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs,” referring to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon after Lebanon’s civil war.

The March 14 movement issued a statement implicitly blaming the bombing on Assad’s government: “The murderer is the same one, killing the Syrians and the Lebanese.”

Saad Hariri called the bombing a message to the international tribunal that is to hold its opening sessions on his father’s killing at The Hague in January.

“Those who assassinated Mohammed Chatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri,” he said. They were “luring regional fires to our country,” he said.

Friday’s bombing struck an area that symbolizes the continuing struggle over Lebanon’s identity. The downtown was largely destroyed during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Rafik Hariri rebuilt it as a shopping and office district mainly patronized by the wealthy. The project was seen by his critics as a monument to corruption and nepotism, and by his supporters as a symbol of rebirth.

Ward, the restaurant manager, said the bombing would deepen the country’s economic woes and gut holiday business. He blamed greedy, warring politicians who want to show people, “If you don’t go along with us, see what happens.”

“As long as there is conflict around Lebanon, there will be other bombs,” he said. “This is not the Lebanese community that I want.”

The New York Times,