- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

BEIRUT — Car bombs ripped through a Christian neighborhood, killing three persons yesterday and raising tensions ahead of an expected face-off between government and opposition supporters on today’s anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

Thousands of government supporters are expected to rally at the grave of Mr. Hariri, just yards from where Hezbollah-backed opposition supporters have been camped out demanding a greater share of power.

The confrontation is seen as a major test of the stability of a fragile country that many fear is spiraling toward another sectarian civil war.

In a televised address last night, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora blamed Syria for yesterday’s bombings, which also injured 18 persons, and called for sanctions against Damascus.

“We will not be terrorized and we will not be scared off,” Mr. Siniora said, adding that the government will not “give up our commitment to serve justice” in the Hariri assassination and related crimes.

Mr. Hariri’s son, parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, said the bombings were a “cowardly terrorist attack” that underscored the need for an international tribunal to try the suspects in his father’s death.

Lebanon is at a virtual standstill because of a power struggle between Mr. Siniora’s pro-Western government and the Iranian and Syrian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah.

On Monday, the younger Mr. Hariri called on those “who loved Rafik Hariri to commemorate the second anniversary with a massive turnout” in Martyr’s Square, the site of Mr. Hariri’s grave, just yards from where the pro-Hezbollah protesters have been holding a sit-in since Dec. 1.

A large turnout was expected, given the breadth of affection for the former prime minister, as witnessed by the hundreds of images of Mr. Hariri appearing in shop windows, billboards and faded photographs taped to car windshields.

Both sides say they want the commemoration to be peaceful, but tensions were high because of yesterday’s bombing and a violent opposition protest last month that left eight persons dead and a few hundred others wounded.

The Lebanese army has said that it will not allow a repeat of January’s riots. Security forces cordoned off most of Martyr’s Square with razor wire at the start of the opposition sit-in in December.

The dispute between the government and Hezbollah centers on a proposed international tribunal to try suspects in the killing of Mr. Hariri, a self-made billionaire and business tycoon.

Mr. Hariri was prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 until his resignation in October 2004. A Sunni Muslim moderate, he played a leading role in the reconstruction of Beirut but resisted Syrian pressure to dominate Lebanese affairs.

Public outrage at his death focused on Syria, forcing Damascus to end a military presence of almost three decades in Lebanon. Syria has denied any involvement in the bombing, which killed 22 persons besides Mr. Hariri.

The assassination is the subject of an ongoing U.N.-led investigation, but the Lebanese parliament still must approve a U.N.-established international tribunal that would hear charges against suspects.

That approval has been delayed by bickering between the government and opposition. Mr. Siniora’s coalition has accused Hezbollah of trying to protect Syria, but the opposition says it is worried only about political influence from outsiders such as the United States.

An agreement between the opposing camps seemed to be in the works this week. According to numerous reports in the Lebanese press, both sides are considering a proposal for two bipartisan committees to discuss the creation of the tribunal and the distribution of seats in a new Cabinet.



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