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Car bomb in Lebanon kills lawmaker, 6 others

Politicians in the Western-backed ruling majority accuse Syria of carrying out the attack to disrupt the upcoming presidential election.

September 20, 2007|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — A large car bomb shook a Christian neighborhood outside Beirut on Wednesday, killing a Lebanese lawmaker and six other people days before the parliament of this politically divided country holds a presidential election.

The slaying of Antoine Ghanem, 64, a member of the Western-backed parliamentary majority, was the sixth assassination in the last 2 1/2 years targeting prominent opponents of neighboring Syria. Some analysts said the killing was an attempt by groups loyal to Syria to reduce the size of a parliamentary bloc supported by the United States and Europe.

The slaying, which also left scores wounded, stirred fears of increased instability as the country's rival parties continued to joust over electing a successor to President Emile Lahoud. The choice by parliament will probably determine whether political power in Lebanon leans toward the West or is tugged closer to Iran and Syria.

The explosion occurred about 5:20 p.m., during rush hour, leaving a large crater, shattering the facades of nearby buildings and destroying numerous cars in the relatively affluent residential area of Sin el Fil. Police said more than 44 pounds of explosives were placed under a car that exploded as the legislator's vehicle passed.

Politicians in the ruling majority accused Syria of carrying out the bombing to hamper the upcoming election.

"The enemies of Lebanon want to block the presidential election because they want to kill Lebanon," said Saad Hariri, head of the country's parliamentary majority, in a televised speech.

Hariri, whose father, Rafik, a former prime minister, was assassinated in February 2005 in a Beirut bombing, also said that Syria acted in response to an alleged Israeli strike on its soil, reportedly aimed at a shipment of weapons for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The Bush administration on Wednesday also voiced suspicion of Syrian involvement in the bombing.

"It's unfortunate that you can see a pattern here of political assassinations . . . specifically directed against those who have opposed Syrian interference and Syrian domination of Lebanon," said Tom Casey, deputy State Department spokesman. "And it's hard to see it as a coincidence."

A parliamentary session for electing a new president is scheduled for Tuesday, although it was uncertain whether it would take place. The Hezbollah-led opposition, allied with Iran and Syria, said that it would boycott the session if a nonpartisan president was not chosen and has warned that convening without its members would have dire consequences.

Observers worry that a political deadlock will result in the creation of two governments, which could pave the way for a new civil war.

"The country is likely heading toward electing a new president despite the latest assassination," said Michael Young, a Beirut-based political analyst. "But the new president will probably be weak or neutral, and this will ultimately benefit the pro-Syrian opposition."

Ghanem, like many Lebanese politicians, had been residing outside Lebanon for fear of being targeted. He returned last week to attend the coming parliamentary elections.

Ghanem was a member of the Christian Falangist Party founded by the family of former Cabinet minister and member of parliament Pierre Gemayel, who was assassinated in November.

In June, Walid Eido, a 65-year-old Sunni Muslim lawmaker with the anti-Syria coalition, was killed when a bomb exploded as he drove in a predominantly Sunni area of Beirut. The blast that killed Rafik Hariri and 22 others in February 2005 led to mass demonstrations and the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

"This is not a country. We live like dogs here," said Makram Kazzi, a 65-year-old retired pilot, as tears filled his eyes. Makram, whose children live in the U.S., was sitting alone in his living room when the blast shook the walls of his apartment, which overlooks the bombing site.

Sevag Abrahamian, a 24-year-old accountant, was driving with his girlfriend when he saw cars blowing up in front of him.

"I was shaking. Everything happened so fast. I saw flames and smoke and shattered glass," he said. "I hold all our politicians responsible. Why should innocent passersby pay the price?"

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Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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