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‘Iron man’ helps reshape Lebanon
MOUKHTARA, Lebanon - Ralid Jumblatt’s sur-name means “the iron man” in Kurdish, and to many Lebanese that rings true.
A warlord during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Mr. Jumblatt, now 56, has been rehabilitated, becoming the leading Druze lawmaker in Lebanon’s parliament. He still has to deal with attacks from Suleiman Franjieh, a Syrian loyalist, and other lawmakers who accuse him of war crimes.
“It’s not the first accusation,” he said. “I was at one time a warlord, OK, and he was a warlord — so what?”
At Mr. Jumblatt’s heavily defended, 400-year-old home in Moukhtara — about 30 miles southeast of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, and 18 miles from the coastal city of Damour — it is easy to sense his family’s rich heritage and how closely he is attached to it.
Mr. Jumblatt’s ancestors were Kurds, and his friends say he is proud of his roots. Walid Arbid, a professor at Lebanese University, said the Jumblatt family emigrated from Syria to Lebanon during the 17th century at the invitation of Druze leader Fakhredine, before rising to political prominence under the leadership of Sheik Bashir Jumblatt.
Ten generations later, Mr. Jumblatt is still connected to the past, as a visit to his personal library testifies. Pictures of him with his son Taymour and Fidel Castro hang on the wall, and one corner displays relics of the civil war. The thousands of books are categorized by religion, culture, philosophy and country, covering everything from the Arab world to Latin America and from Islam to communism.
“He has a sense of where history goes like nobody else,” said Chibli Mallat, a confidant and close friend.
Mr. Jumblatt is many things to many people. Dressed in a blazer and jeans, he talks about his passion for riding Harley-Davidsons, gardening and caring for the environment. But these interests belie Mr. Jumblatt’s reputation as a versatile political animal that has adapted skillfully to changing times.
When his father, Kamal, was killed in 1977 over his suspected opposition to Syria’s military presence in Lebanon during the civil war, Mr. Jumblatt inherited his leadership and eventually played an important part in the conflict. When he recognized the changing tide in 1989, he supported the Taif agreement that ended the war.
He now defies Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government under President Emile Lahoud.
“The obstacle is Lahoud,” he said. “How can we remove Lahoud? If Lahoud is to stay, he will prolong the crisis, with all the possible consequences and with all the [intelligence] services still sponsored by the Syrians that can carry out sabotage — this is my thesis,” he said.
When Mr. Lahoud announced in September, with the full backing of the Syrians, that he was seeking to extend his term in office, Mr. Jumblatt concluded that the country had reached a crossroads. The Druze leader threw his weight behind his good friend Rafik Hariri, the prime minister.
When Mr. Hariri was assassinated on Feb. 14, Mr. Jumblatt knew Lebanon was at a point of no return. Fearing for his life, he sought refuge in his mansion after leaving his villa in the Hamra district of Beirut. At the same time, he became more critical of the Lebanese government and of the Syrians, moving to the fore of the opposition camp.
Mr. Jumblatt now has become the point man for the opposition. In Lebanon, everyone from journalists and politicians to taxi drivers and teachers want to know what he has to say, and his opinions also are sought on a regional and international level. Under the Lebanese Constitution, however, he can hold only a ministerial position because only Shi’ites, Christians and Sunnis are permitted to wield executive powers.
“He’s not just a Druze leader,” Mr. Mallat said. “He is meeting heads of state that no other Lebanese leader, including the Lebanese president, reaches — and I think even internationally, his access is unmatched.
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