AP News

Lebanese opposition blames Syria for assassination


BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's main opposition bloc stepped up pressure Wednesday on the Hezbollah-dominated government to resign after blaming the Shiite militant group's ally Syria for a car bomb that killed a top intelligence officer.

The anti-Syrian opposition alliance said Lebanon's rival groups can't hold a national dialogue until the government led by Hezbollah and its allies steps down.

"The first step to face strife is the fall of this government," said a statement by the March 14 coalition of anti-Syrian parties read by senior official Fares Soeid. "The government, through its leader and the political groups that back him, takes major responsibility for facilitating the plan of the criminal Assad regime," it added.

The statement was an apparent reference to what anti-Syrian politicians say is lack of support for investigations into other recent assassination attempts.

Friday's assassination of senior intelligence officer Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a car bomb has stirred up sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where Sunnis and Shiites are deeply divided over the Syrian civil war. Violence since the assassination has killed 13 people.

Damascus has intervened heavily in Lebanese affairs over the past decades and is blamed for the deaths of many prominent critics and anti-Syrian political figures. But Hezbollah remains a staunch ally to both Syria and Iran, which provide much of its arms and funding.

Soeid said the opposition will work to bring down the government through peaceful means.

The United States also waded into the debate, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton making a thinly veiled jab at Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

Clinton told reporters in Washington that the Lebanese must choose their own government, but that "the Lebanese people deserve so much better."

"They deserve to live in peace and they deserve to have a government that reflects their aspirations, not acts as proxies and agents for outside forces," she said.

Lebanon's two largest political coalitions have lined up on opposite sides of Syria's civil war. Hezbollah and its partners who dominate the government have stood by Assad's regime, while the Sunni-led opposition backs the rebels seeking to topple the government. Assad and many in his inner circle are Alawites — an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority in Syria — while the rebels come mostly from the country's Sunni majority.

Al-Hassan was the latest of some dozen anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians and security forces to be killed since February 2005 when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a truck bomb in Beirut. Hariri at the time was distancing himself from Syria, which dominated Lebanon for decades.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati offered to resign after Friday's bombing. But he was asked by President Michel Suleiman to stay while he consulted politicians involved in a national dialogue that has been trying for months to find a solution to the dilemma of Hezbollah's arsenal.

Hezbollah is by far the country's strongest military force with its own arsenal that it has refused to integrate into the regular army. Lebanon also has dozens of smaller militias linked to political groups, families or tribes. It's a problem the country has struggled with since the 1975-1990 civil war.

An official close to Suleiman told The Associated Press that one topic on the agenda for a national dialogue would be "what kind of government they suggest." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

However, the demand for the government's resignation is likely to block any dialogue because Hezbollah and its allies will most likely refuse to do so.

Suleiman met with Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc. Raad said after the meeting that the group is ready to attend the national dialogue adding that he and the president did not speak about the Cabinet "at all," apparently a reference to the demands for its resignation.

U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly met Suleiman and an embassy statement said she reiterated Washington's support for the president and other leaders as they seek "to build an effective government and take the necessary next steps" in the wake of al-Hassan's assassination.

She noted the concerns shared by the U.S. and international community regarding the potential for instability and the creation of any political vacuum, the statement said.

Angry protesters tried to storm the government palace after al-Hassan's funeral Sunday in Beirut, venting their rage at leaders they consider puppets of the Syrian regime. But they were pushed back by troops who fired their guns in the air and filled the street with tear gas.

Al-Hassan's work led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon, who is accused of plotting a wave of attacks in Lebanon at Syria's behest. Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad's most senior aides, was indicted in absentia in the August sweep.

On Wednesday, security officials said investigators are looking into the type of explosives used in Friday's bombings to see if it was similar to those that Samaha brought in his car to Lebanon from Syria.

They are also checking data of cellular telephone calls that were done in the areas of the explosion before the blast occurred, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. They added that street security cameras in the area showed that a car had saved a place for the booby-trapped Toyota RAV4, which parked near al-Hassan's office shortly after the other vehicle left.

The Toyota RAV4 was stolen more than a year ago and the thieves had called its original owner asking him if he wants to buy it back. Officials said they are trying to identify those who called the car owner.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed reporting from Washington.


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