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July 14, 2005

Lebanon Has That Civil War Feeling Again

by Jim Lobe

BEIRUT - Lebanon has not really had the occasion yet to enjoy the departure of Syrian troops and the victory of anti-Syrian groups in the parliamentary elections last month. The country is facing a period of political and economic upheaval almost unparalleled since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

This week, a fifth bomb went off in a series that has been aimed at mostly anti-Syrian politicians and journalists since October last year. Syria extended a week-long slowdown of border checks for trucks coming out of Lebanon, and the country's prime minister-designate is close to resigning as a result of pressure by Syria's still powerful supporters.

The target of Tuesday's bomb attack was outgoing defense minister Elias Murr, who is also deputy prime minister and former interior minister. He is a scion of the powerful Murr family that has had a hand in many political and economic pies in the country for decades.

Murr, who survived the blast that killed two people in a northern suburb of Beirut, is also son-in-law of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud.

Tannous Mouawad, a security analyst with close ties to the army, says that despite his pro-Syrian image and connections, Murr had been in conflict with the powerful former head of Syrian security in Lebanon, Dustom Ghazale, since 2003.

So far, only explicitly anti-Syrian politicians and a journalist have been targeted, apart from a parallel series of bombings aimed at commercial properties.

The most prominent victim of the bombings was former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in a huge blast in the center of Beirut in February. He had resigned several months earlier after a conflict with Syria over the extension of the mandate of President Lahoud, which he initially opposed.

Despite Syrian denials of involvement, the killing of Hariri sparked huge protests in Lebanon that eventually, in combination with international pressure, led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops who had been present in the country for some 30 years.

The attack against Murr, said Mouawad, was meant not only as a settling of accounts but may also have been intended to intimidate his immediate family, President Lahoud in particular. "You always think it will not happen to you but when it hits your family, you start thinking about it," he told IPS.

Lahoud is Syria's most important remaining asset in the Lebanese political system. But he has the approval of the new cabinet that the victorious anti-Syrian coalition is trying to form.

Prime minister-designate Fouad Siniora from the bloc of Saad Hariri, son of the murdered former prime minister, has been trying to put together a broad coalition, including also the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and Amal parties and the right-wing former army general Michel Aoun.

On Tuesday, hours after the attack on Murr, Siniora finally presented a list of 30 ministers to Lahoud for approval. Later in the evening, Aoun and Hezbollah withdrew from the list. President Lahoud is rumored to be opposed to the list.

With all of Syria's allies or presumed allies such as Aoun opposed to the new government, the impression of Syrian obstructionism in the formation of the new government became even stronger in Lebanon after weeks of negotiations in which Siniora had given in to most of their demands.

Syria has condemned the attack on Murr, as it has condemned earlier attacks, but the timing does again lead many Lebanese to point the finger at Damascus.

"Syria wants Siniora out and [current pro-Syrian PM] Najib Mikati back in," said Mouawad. Mikati is known to be friendly with Syria's president, Bashar Assad.

While there is no hard evidence to link Syria to any of the violence in the country, or even to the political stalemate, there is now a clear element of economic pressure added to the mix.

For more than a week now, Syria has imposed stringent border controls on traffic leaving Lebanon, particularly on trucks exporting products from the country, but also on travelers.

Hundreds of trucks, some carrying perishable produce, have been stuck for days at border crossings that are normally negotiated in a matter of hours.

Lebanese trade lobbyists have accused Syria of using economic pressure for political purposes. "This is a political game the Syrians are playing to influence the formation of the new government," said Mouhedienne Jammal, coordinator of Lebanon's agricultural and industrial cooperatives.

Many Lebanese see the Syrian behavior as an act of vengeance. At the main border crossing between Beirut and Damascus at Masnaa, where travelers were rarely seriously checked by Syrian customs, the checks verged on the bizarre this week. One Lebanese woman was told to open a box of biscuits, and a family was not allowed to bring a bag of diapers into Syria.

Syria has given contradictory explanations for the slowdown. Interior Minister Ghazi Kena'an, a former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, was quoted in the Arab media as saying that the checks were for security reasons. A border official said that last week customs officials had intercepted a cargo of explosives on the border at Jdeide, on the Syrian side of Masnaa.

But Syria's head of customs Basel Sannoufa had earlier denied this. He blamed logistics at the border terminals and also congestion at Syria's border with Iraq, the destination of many trucks coming from Lebanon.

The border with Syria is Lebanon's only open land crossing. The frontier with Israel, with which it is in a state of war, is closed. Lebanon annually exports goods worth more than half a billion dollars to Syria and through Syria to the rest of the Arab world, according to the Association of Lebanese Industrialists.

Siniora has held talks with Nasri Khoury, who heads the Lebanese-Syrian higher council that oversees political and economic cooperation between the two countries. Khoury also blamed security for the border problems and said he was working on ending the delays.

Syria's measures may be in violation of an Arab League free-trade agreement. The controls may also run counter to the association agreement that Damascus wants to sign with the European Union.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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