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.
“He is constrained by the fact that in Lebanon, the best he can be is a minister. He realizes that under the system as it stands now, he’ll never be a president, prime minister or speaker.”
Mr. Jumblatt is unwavering about ending Syrian rule in Lebanon and trying those responsible for the killing of Mr. Hariri. Throughout a trip to meet state leaders in the Persian Gulf, Europe and Russia, he watched as criticism of Syria gained momentum and the Lebanese people looked to him for guidance.
The tour, he said later, sought no guarantees or promises but was to set the record straight. “I went there to explain my position. I didn’t go there for help. I just explained my position as the opposition, and the need to have a good and friendly relationship with Syria — but without this kind of pressure. … And the basic issue was who killed Rafik Hariri,” he said.
Though Mr. Jumblatt has demanded the resignation of the Syrian-backed government and the heads of the state security apparatus, as well as the withdrawal of the Syrian army, he was never asked to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad and doesn’t want to see him.
“It’s not a personal issue; these are the Lebanese demands. Let him listen to the Lebanese people,” Mr. Jumblatt said. “I think he should listen [and] see the Lebanese want freedom.”
Instead, Mr. Jumblatt is focused on ousting Mr. Lahoud, and goes so far as to say the Lebanese president was complicit in Mr. Hariri’s death. “He’s covering all the various intelligence agencies; he should know about it,” he said.
But asked what Mr. Lahoud represents, Mr. Jumblatt said, “He’s a Syrian puppet — that’s it.
“The entire crisis started when some Syrian circles imposed him on us. All of the political crisis and the bloody, bloody attempts [to kill legislator] Marwan Hamadeh and the killing of Hariri — he’s responsible.”
Critics say the opposition has been so adamant about getting rid of Syria and bringing down the government that it has forgotten to put together a plan to carry the country forward after the Syrians leave.
Mr. Jumblatt dismisses such criticism, noting that the opposition has reaped dividends since the assassination.
“I think up to now the Cedar Revolution [has been] able to [bring] down the government and [begin to] get the Syrians out — that’s not bad,” he said. The cedars of Lebanon are the national symbol.
“I think the Lebanese have said it’s enough. The killing of Hariri triggered this mass popular movement. Unfortunately, it was because of his death. The Lebanese [have] said: ‘We want to live in a civilized country. We don’t want any more killings or assassinations.’”
Some opposition members raised their eyebrows when Patriarch Butros Sfeir, head of the 900,000-member Maronite Catholic Church, met with President Bush and announced:
“I firmly believe in the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe there will be a Palestinian state. I believe we’ll be able to convince Syria to fully withdraw from Lebanon, or else she’ll be isolated. I believe those examples will serve as examples [of democracy] for others over time.”
Though he initially said Patriarch Sfeir was representing him on his visit to Washington, Mr. Jumblatt was critical of the patriarch’s inference that events in Lebanon are connected to those elsewhere. “All these situations are totally different” he insists.