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Lebanon struggles to keep order as many blame Syria for bombing

Protesters block roads in Beirut and around Lebanon, and gunmen roam Tripoli amid fear that the conflict is spilling across the border.

October 20, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators chant slogans Oct. 20 in Martyrs Square in Beirut to protest the killing of Lebanon's intelligence chief, Gen. Wissam Hassan and seven others.
Demonstrators chant slogans Oct. 20 in Martyrs Square in Beirut to protest… (Bilal Hussein / Associated…)

BEIRUT — Lebanon's military was out in force Saturday as authorities struggled to maintain order amid outrage about a deadly bombing here that many Lebanese blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Officials urged calm in an edgy nation where many fear that Friday's bombing, which killed the country's police intelligence chief and seven others, could usher in a new wave of communal violence linked to the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Diplomats and others have been warning that Syria's violence could spill over into nearby nations — especially Lebanon, with its volatile sectarian mix and history of civil war — and further destabilize the entire Middle East.

PHOTOS: Bombing in Beirut

On Saturday, protesters burned tires to block roads and highways in and around the capital and elsewhere in Lebanon. Gunmen roamed the northern city of Tripoli. Army units were stationed around East Beirut's Sassine Square, a mostly Christian district near the site of Friday's audacious midafternoon blast.

The focus on Syria reflects how that nation has dominated much-smaller Lebanon militarily and politically for much of the last 30 years.

Syrian troops, who intervened in this country's civil war in the 1970s and remained long after the conflict ended, pulled out of Lebanon in 2005 after mass protests dubbed the Cedar Revolution. But Syria remains a central player in Lebanese affairs. Damascus is closely allied with Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that is a dominant force in Lebanese politics.

The bombing Friday was the first significant attack in four years in Beirut, which has been rebuilding and gradually returning to a sense of normality since the civil war ended in 1990 after 15 years of sectarian-fueled bloodshed. More recently, from 2005 to 2008, the capital and its environs endured intermittent bombings and other politically motivated attacks, many targeting anti-Syrian activists.

Among the eight people reported killed Friday was the presumed target, Gen. Wissam Hassan, who was close to a Lebanese opposition bloc calling for Assad's ouster.

Anti-Assad factions in Lebanon, mostly Sunni Muslims, labeled the slain official the latest "martyr" killed by the Syrian government and declared Saturday a day of national mourning.

Lebanon's Sunni community is generally supportive of the Sunni-led rebellion against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. Lebanon's Shiite community is generally viewed as backing Assad. Lebanese Christians are seen as divided on the Syria question.

Syria denied any involvement in Friday's car-bomb attack, and Lebanese authorities said no concrete evidence had yet been found connecting Syria to the blast.

But Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who heads a coalition government generally viewed as pro-Syrian, told reporters that he believed the bombing was linked to the slain general's role in exposing an alleged plot by Syria to stoke violence in Lebanon. He did not directly accuse Syria, however.

The bombing unleashed a cascade of opposition demands for the resignation of Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications magnate.

After an emergency Cabinet meeting Saturday, the prime minister said at a news conference that he had offered to step down but that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman had persuaded him to stay on.

"We need to keep the nation unified. We need to keep the nation stable," declared Mikati, who said he feared for his family's lives.

The prime minister has endeavored to insulate Lebanon from the chaos in Syria through a "disassociation" policy. As part of that stance, the government of Lebanon has refrained from officially backing either side in the Syrian conflict. Despite criticism at home, some Western diplomats have given Mikati high marks for trying to steer Lebanon clear of the bedlam in Syria.

The two nations' shared borders have seen periodic outbreaks of gunfire, shelling, tit-for-tat kidnappings and infiltration by armed groups. Lebanese of different sects reportedly have volunteered to fight in Syria on both sides. But, until Friday, Beirut had escaped major incidents.

Security probably will be tested anew Sunday, when a public funeral is scheduled in downtown Beirut for the assassinated intelligence chief.

One opposition member of parliament, Nuhad Mashnouk, called for "a day of wrath in the face of the murderer Bashar," referring to the Syrian president, Lebanon's national news agency reported.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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