Beirut car bomb fuels rumours of Syrian plot

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

The Independent

20 March 2005

An explosion early yesterday wounded eight people and left a crater two metres deep in Jdeide, a Christian district of Beirut. Was it meant to kill far more?

That one has to mention the ethnic origin of the people in Jdeide shows just how fragile life for the Lebanese has become in the aftermath of the murder of the ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, also in an explosion, on 14 February. And it was pathetically inevitable that Pierre Gemayel, whose family did so much to destroy the unity of Lebanon during the civil war, should have been the first to respond to the bombing.

"This has been the message to the Lebanese people for a while - to sow fear and terror among Lebanese citizens," Mr Gemayel told the al-Jazeera television channel. "If there is a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, look what Lebanon will face."

Unfortunately for Mr Gemayel, eyewitnesses said the attack might have been the result of a business dispute - the bomber originally wanted to park his vehicle in front of a bingo hall - rather than a political statement. The bomb, say the police, was placed beneath the car of a Lebanese-Armenian. Yet for a country without a government, and with the Syrian army continuing its withdrawal from Lebanon, Mr Gemayel was playing his own tune.

The pro-Syrian President, Emile Lahoud, said Lebanon was experiencing "exceptional circumstances" which required immediate talks between the government and the opposition, which evaded the issue of the bombing and what many Lebanese suspected: that it had Syrian origins.

In New York, the Lebanese Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, said he believed Syria would withdraw the last of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon before elections planned for April and May, as the UN and the United States demand.

At Dhour Choueir, near Beirut, Syrian intelligence officers left in such haste that they abandoned documents implicating Lebanese citizens in their work. Letters found in the building, used for 29 years by the Syrians, were from Lebanese supporters of Syria, denouncing anti-Syrian Phalangists.

But were these documents deliberately abandoned to cause dissension between the Lebanese who would no longer be under the "protection" of Syria?