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LEBANON - Nov 21 - Anti-Syrian Leader Killed In Lebanon.

Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese cabinet minister and strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, is gunned down in his car, jolting a nation already paralysed by political conflict that threatens to topple the government. The killing of Gemayel, the 34-year-old scion of a prominent Maronite Christian family, inflamed tensions between the anti-Syria coalition trying to hold its government together and the Syrian-allied opposition, led by Hizbullah. An Iranian-supported Shiite group, Hizbullah has threatened street protests if it is not given more power. The demonstrations were expected Nov 23. Now, there will be a funeral instead. Lebanese radio reported that shots were also fired Nov 21 into the Beirut office of Michel Pharaon, a Greek Catholic member of the ruling coalition and minister for parliamentary affairs. Lebanon's PM, Fouad Siniora, vowed in a televised speech that his government would hold firm. "I pledge to you that your blood will not go in vain", Siniora said. "We will not let the murderers control the fate of Lebanon and the future of its children". In truth, his government is on life support. Last week, six pro-Syria ministers aligned with Hizbullah resigned after a failed effort to gain greater control over the government. A seventh minister resigned earlier in an unrelated conflict. With Gemayel's death, there are too few ministers to pass any measures, because more than two-thirds of the 24-member cabinet are needed for the government to enact legislation. The PM's allies in the so-called March 14 coalition - a pro-Western group of Sunni Muslims, Druse and Christians - blamed Syria for the killing. "We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place", Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former PM, Rafik Hariri, said shortly after Gemayel was pronounced dead. Officials in Damascus and Syria's allies in Lebanon condemned the killing. Gemayel, the industry minister, was the fifth anti-Syria figure to be killed since Hariri's assassination rocked Lebanon in February 2005. The killing reverberated far beyond Lebanon. Condemnations poured in from Britain, Germany, Italy, France, the EU, Jordan, Egypt and the US. President Bush suggested in a statement that the assassination was part of a plan by Syria, Iran and its allies to "foment instability and violence" in Lebanon. The US is heavily invested in the survival of Siniora's government, which has offered Washington a chance - however faded - to thwart the spread of Iranian influence in the region. The killing also is likely to complicate any American effort to enlist Syria's help to stabilise Iraq. The US withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after Hariri was assassinated nearly two years ago and suspicion fell heavily on Syria. Now the White House is under pressure domestically and abroad to engage with Syria and Iran to quell the violence in Iraq. But the suspicion that Syria is behind the efforts to destabilise Lebanon will make it nearly impossible for Washington to send a full ambassador back to Damascus without appearing to have abandoned the Siniora government. At the same time, any allegation of Syria's involvement is likely to antagonise Syrian officials - and make them even more reluctant to back off of a military, political and economic alliance with Iran. For a time, after the initial occupation of Iraq and the assassination of Hariri, Syria's ruling elite felt threatened, vulnerable and isolated. Syria was humiliated when it was forced, after the Hariri killing, to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon. But in recent days, Syria has found its strategic stature in the Middle East bolstered by the surge of violence in Iraq, and the suggestion that the US might ask for its help. While it has denied any role in the Lebanon violence, it has not denied its desire to reinsert itself as the primary force in Lebanese affairs. "This is a crime against Lebanon, all of Lebanon", Hassan Khalil, a pro-Syria member of Parliament and member of the Shiite Amal party, said in a television interview. "This is a crime that we condemn". In the complex and shadowy world of Lebanon's long-warring factions, conspiracy theories can cut both ways. Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies said the only beneficiaries of Gemayel's death were anti-Syria forces. They also argued that the newly inflamed environment would make it impossible for Hizbullah to follow through anytime soon with its promised protests. The UN Security Council, spurred by Gemayel's killing, approved a proposal by Sec Gen Kofi Annan for the creation of an international tribunal to try those accused of Hariri's assassination. The tribunal still has one major hurdle to clear before it can go to work: it must be approved by the government of Lebanon, which is deeply divided over its existence. Moreover, no one has yet been charged in Hariri's death. While young, Gemayel was a third-generation politician from a family that founded a far-right, nationalist party called Phalange. The party fielded the largest militia during Lebanon's civil war and sought to unite Christians against all other groups. The party today is very small, yet Gemayel stood as a potent symbol to a portion of Lebanon's Christian community that is frightened and angered by its loss of primacy in Lebanon's political arena. "He is not powerful in himself", said Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst. "But his uncle was president, his father was president, his grandfather founded the Phalange. He's a symbol of all that history much more than he is a power on the streets. This is a great blow to Lebanese Christians in general". This latest assassination to scar the Gemayel family - Gemayel's uncle, Bashir, was also killed - occurred in broad daylight, in a brazen attack even for a country weary of political killings. While other anti-Syria figures have been killed in the past two years, Gemayel was the first to be shot in the head and not blown up with a bomb. Gemayel was in the passenger seat of his own silver Kia, driving through the Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh, which he represented in Parliament. About 4 p.m., a car rammed into Gemayel's and three gunmen rushed his car, spraying it with bullets from silencer-equipped automatic weapons, Lebanese security officials said. The driver, who was not injured, drove to St. Joseph's Hospital, where Gemayel was declared dead. Crowds of supporters gathered outside the hospital, weeping, waving their fists and screaming anti-Syria slogans even before the death was confirmed. Gemayel's father, Amin, tried to calm tensions. Shocked and drawn, the former president stood in the street outside the hospital, speaking to reporters and supporters. "I would like to ask those who love Pierre to preserve the cause", he said. "We don't want to do anything instinctively. He was serving the cause, and he died for Lebanon, for freedom and for humanity. And we should not desecrate his memory by any irresponsible acts". While there was anger in the streets, there was also palpable anxiety. The city slowed down, as it might before a storm. Shops closed early in downtown Beirut; the army began patrolling the streets. On the campus of the American University of Beirut, hundreds of students gathered near the main gate, discussing the news in hushed tones. Ali Hamadeh, 18, a first-year civil engineering student, voiced the fears of many students in describing his anxieties about the future. "We think it may lead to another civil war", Hamadeh said. "It's a disaster for Lebanon, on the level of the Hariri assassination. The people will go to the streets - and at the very least the government will change".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Nov 18, 2006
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