Lebanon yields to opposition tide

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Lebonese President Emile Lahoud

A late night car bomb explosion on Saturday in Beirut wounded 5 people and sparked a large fire in an industrial suburb east of the city. This marks the second car bombing inside a week's time in the Lebanon capital’s anti-Syrian vicinities.

The blast added an exclamation point to the sudden policy shift by Lebanon's top leadership.

In an announcement earlier Saturday, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hamoud said to reporters, "Lebanon agrees to the creation of an international commission of inquiry if the [UN] Security Council takes such a decision to uncover the truth in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri". The statement came after a joint meeting in Beirut with UN ambassadors from Britain, China and Russia. Further meetings with UN envoys from France and the United States are being sought.

Opposition government pressure, spearheaded by Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, called for the removal of all Lebanese security chiefs earlier that day. Urging for their resignations, Jumblatt said, “It is not possible to carry out a just, serious, clear and transparent investigation if the heads of the agencies remain in their place.”

Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government originally rejected a UN Security Council report issued Thursday that found, "[security services] has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion" in the bombing assassination of the anti-Syrian former prime minster Rafiq Hariri. The UN investigation complained they could not conduct it more thoroughly, partly due to lack of cooperation from Lebanon’s security services. The UN report bolsters Jumblatt claims these services are staffed by pro-Syrian agents and are the source of the car bombings and other lawlessness.

The Hariri assassination on Feb 14 was the galvanizing force that spurred opposition government groups to street protests and rallies. The capital has since been beset with protesting groups both for, and against, the Syrian presence in Lebanon. A recent rally was estimated to have numbered a million people.

In the face of these events and UN pressure, the Syrian capital of Damascus agreed to have its forces leave Lebanon. The Syrians have completed the first phase of its previously announced two-stage withdrawal. A meeting is planned for early April where a Lebanese-Syrian military committee will discuss the how the second stage will be conducted. The goal is for complete withdrawal before national elections scheduled for May.

The worry is that Lebanon may be so far diminished in the vacuum created by the Syrian exit, the country may plunge into chaos.