Robert Fisk reports that a change in atmosphere in Beirut had been palpable for some time before the assassination of Rafik Hariri on Monday....



By Robert Fisk

Independent (UK)
February 15, 2005 (subscriber only)

WE KNEW something was coming. I had met an old journalist colleague for coffee on Saturday and we both said we felt there was a new, menacing atmosphere about Beirut. We didn't mean the sky-high prices and the usual corruption stories, but the incendiary language in which Lebanese politics was now being conducted.

"Walid Jumblatt better watch out," my colleague remarked, and I agreed. Just last month, the Druze leader in Lebanon announced that "elements" of the Syrian Baath party had murdered his father, Kemal Jumblatt, in 1975. This was explosive stuff -- and he said all this to a Christian Maronite audience at St Joseph University.

The response last week was even more dangerous. The Baath party demanded that the Lebanese state should prosecute Mr. Jumblatt for slander and treachery. Then Omar Karami, the colorless and very pro-Syrian Prime Minister -- Rafik Hariri's replacement -- claimed that those members of the political opposition demanding a Syrian retreat from Lebanon were "working with the Israelis." Others used the word "Mossad" instead of Israel. In Lebanon, this kind of language leads to a detonation.

Forthcoming elections -- and an attempt to change electoral boundaries that might have deprived anti-Syrian factions of parliamentary seats -- contrived to heat up the controversy already begun by U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, principally supported by the Americans and French, which demands the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon.

They came here, of course, in 1976, under an Arab League agreement to end the civil war -- they failed -- and the accord was at the time approved by President Jimmy Carter and, partially, by Israel. But the post-war Taif agreement, in 1989, called for a Syrian withdrawal to the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon, which Syria did not honor. Its protégés in Lebanon loudly announced that they did not want the Syrians to leave.

Jacques Chirac, the French President, insisted that they should go. Hariri was one of Chirac's best friends. They even had a beer together in the new city center when the French President was last in Beirut. No bodyguards then. No security. But things have changed.

A few weeks ago the U.S. stepped in, warning that it would not tolerate any violence before the Lebanese elections -- yesterday showed what America's enemies thought of the threat -- and repeating its demand for a Syrian withdrawal. Not until all other U.N. resolutions have been obeyed, said Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese President, constantly antagonistic towards Mr. Hariri and constantly faithful to Syria.

The Israelis have to leave the West Bank before Syria leaves Lebanon. The Lebanese Christians opposed to Syria insisted that Damascus had broken the Taif agreement -- which is true. Karami and Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, held a big conference to point out that the demands of the U.S. and the opposition -- they include the disarming of the Hizbollah -- were all American and Israeli policies; which is also true.

Last Sunday, Lebanese armored vehicles drove down the Corniche in Beirut. I know two friends who have been buying large quantities of bottled water. One has purchased a new generator. Routine manoeuvres, you might say. Precautions against a hot summer or the usual failure of Beirut's power stations. Perhaps.

The Lebanese have no more appetite for war. The conflict which ended in 1990 destroyed their families and their homes and drained their lives of meaning. A new generation has returned from overseas educations, ambitious, irritated by the continuing sectarianism of official life as much as Syria's much reduced military presence. But the Syrian intelligence service remains -- its headquarters are in the eastern town of Aanjar -- and its pursuit of Israeli spies and treachery has become an obsession.

Into this darkening scenario, Mr. Hariri cast a wistful eye, seeing no evil and claiming to hear no evil. So what was his real role in the opposition? Was he merely a disinterested onlooker, gazing down from his palace walls at the small men of Lebanese politics as they bickered about gerrymandered political boundaries? Or did he have other ambitions? Yesterday proved that someone believed he did.