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They will bury Rafik Hariri today beside the city he rebuilt and next to the ruins of the Roman columns that made ancient Beirut famous. But his violent death on Monday has repercussions that go far further east than Lebanon or the Roman empire; for his killing is intimately linked to the insurgency in Iraq–and President Bush’s belief that Syria is encouraging the guerrilla war against US troops in the country.
American pressure on Syria to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon–a cause that Mr Hariri, for quite different reasons, supported–is part of Washington’s attempt to smother Syria’s supposed sympathy for the bloody and increasingly efficient insurgency in Iraq.
Last night, Washington announced the withdrawal of its ambassador to Damascus. It was the clearest sign so far that the US is going to accuse Syria of Mr Hariri’s murder.
Israel, predictably, chose the same moment to add new pre-conditions for any peace talks with Syria: expulsions of "terrorist headquarters" from Damascus, "allow the Lebanese Army to deploy its forces along the border with Israel", and "end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon".
Israel, which occupied part of Lebanon for 24 years, then demanded the "expulsion" of Iranian Revolutionary Guards–who in reality left Lebanon more than 15 years ago. In harness with the Americans, the Israeli threat–especially the specious references to Iranians no longer in Lebanon–represents a grave deepening of the crisis.
Hariri’s burnt body–he died with six of his bodyguards, a paramedic who always accompanied him and at least seven civilians in a car bomb on Monday–will be laid to rest beside the monster–some say monstrous–Sunni Muslim mosque he built in central Beirut, a building that dwarfs the surrounding Crusader churches and restored French mandate buildings.
The tomb will be concreted into place within direct sight of the post-civil war Garden of Forgiveness and the restored but still bullet-riddled monument to the Lebanese martyrs of 1915 and 1916 who were hanged by the Ottoman Turks for demanding Lebanese independence.
The Arab Muslim hero Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders, was buried in the Omayad mosque in Damascus. The billionaire tycoon Rafik Hariri will lie just outside the almost equally large–if much less beautiful–Mohamed Amin Mosque in Beirut.
He who defeated the Middle Ages European empire in the Middle East gave inspiration to the family of the Arab whose business empire swamped Lebanon. But it is the American empire in the region which provided the setting for his death.
Iyad Allawi, the former CIA and MI5 agent, appointed interim Prime Minister of Iraq by the United States, is himself half Lebanese, his mother coming from the esteemed Shia Muslim Osseiran family; Hariri knew him well.
The former Lebanese prime minister also privately acknowledged that the United States was threatening sanctions against Syria–and attacking its military presence in Lebanon–because of its contention that Syria was helping the Iraqi insurgents. As usual, Lebanon had become a battlefield for other people’s wars.
And Hariri was a giant on that battlefield. He had many good friends in Syria but enemies too. And he understood all too well that the Bush administration wanted–in more than one country–to combine its "war on terror" with its campaign for "democracy" in the Middle East.
If Iraq could be invaded for democracy while forming a front line in the "war on terror"–however delusionary this was–then Syria’s presence in Lebanon seemed to mirror the same set of circumstances. Syria supported "terrorism", or at least, sponsored militants that were opposed to Israel, while occupying a neighbouring country, Lebanon, against international law.
Once George Bush and President Jacques Chirac–Hariri’s close personal friend–pushed through UN Security Council resolution 1559, calling for Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, Damascus found itself facing a miniature version of Saddam Hussein’s predicament in 2003: submit to UN resolutions or else.
Lebanon’s forthcoming elections, in which anti-Syrian candidates fear that the pro- Syrian Lebanese government will gerrymander electoral boundaries to deprive them of parliamentary seats, dovetailed neatly with the US neoconservative demand for so-called democracy in the Arab world.
That this also served Israel’s interests–a substantially demilitarised Lebanon, the disarmament of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement and the humiliation of Syria–was never allowed to become part of the narrative.