December 13, 2007 / 2:55 PM / 11 years ago

Assassination pulls Lebanese army into power game

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The assassination of a man poised to become Lebanon’s army chief risks drawing the military into a wider political battle already being waged over the presidency.

The army under General Michel Suleiman, who could be elected president by parliament on Monday if rival leaders can agree on the details, has stayed neutral during three years of political tumult involving Lebanon’s pro- and anti-Syrian factions.

But ultimately the Western-backed ruling majority would like a strengthened army to take full charge of defending Lebanon’s borders, once Hezbollah and Palestinian militias are disarmed.

This is anathema to Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, which says its weapons are vital to deter Israeli aggression as long as Lebanon’s armed forces remain weak and under-equipped.

“This assassination adds a note of extreme tension into the question of who will be the next head of the army — after all, people are now getting killed over this,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

“It has brought to the fore the issue of the army’s mission. If the United States and Syria had reached some accommodation on the presidency, it doesn’t seem to extend to the army,” he said.

Speculation abounds on the identity and motives of those who planted the car bomb that killed Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj as he drove towards the Defence Ministry in a heavily guarded district overlooking Beirut on Wednesday.

Few facts have yet emerged to back any of the media theories about the attack, which departed from a pattern of previous ones that killed nine anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.

Damascus denies charges by its Lebanese opponents that it was behind those assassinations, now under U.N. investigation.

Was the killing of Hajj, the first top army officer to be assassinated, belated revenge by al Qaeda-type militants for his role in the army’s summer onslaught on Fatah al-Islam fighters based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared?

Others suggest his death was the work of Syria, warning the army not to tilt towards the United States or end its tolerance for the armed activities of the Shi’ite Hezbollah group.

Contrarily, could Hajj have fallen victim to forces unwilling to see the army led by an officer seen as chummy with Hezbollah and close to Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun?

HAND OF ISRAEL?

Damascus has discerned the hand of Israel in the death of a man whose car was blown up back in 1976 after he refused to join a pro-Israeli militia in his southern home village of Rmeish.

Or could Hajj’s former Christian militia foes, the Lebanese Forces, have eliminated him before he could become army chief?

Asked about the idea that Islamist militants detonated the bomb that killed Hajj and his bodyguard, a security source said: “It is one of many possibilities, nothing is being discounted.”

A puzzling element is how the assailants could plant their device in Baabda, a top-security suburb housing the presidential palace, as well as embassies and diplomatic residences.

“Army people are supposed to have the best protection,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “But the attackers knew Hajj’s movements.”

Khashan argued that the killing of the 54-year-old chief of army operations was an “in-house” job carried out within the military or by groups with strong military connections.

“It was a coup within the army,” he said.

No theory is too far-fetched for conspiracy-minded Lebanese, but most are hoping the shock of Hajj’s killing will concentrate the minds of their politicians, still wrangling over how to amend the constitution to allow Suleiman to become president.

Disputes have persisted despite a broad agreement reached two weeks ago that Suleiman should fill the vacancy left when pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term ended on November 23.

The president, like the army chief, must be a Maronite Christian in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Suleiman and Hajj won public acclaim and surging support for the army as a symbol of national unity during the Nahr al-Bared battles in which 168 soldiers and about 230 militants died.

Feuding leaders have said Hajj’s killing shows the need to move swiftly to end the months-old deadlock over the presidency, but analysts said the conciliatory mood could be short-lived.

“There’s a growing realization this crisis must be settled, but it’s not in the cards that we will have a president next week,” said Sami Baroudi, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University, who blamed the opposition for the delay.

“Politicians are making statements to deflect public anger, but then each party will go back to its positions,” he added.

Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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