BEIRUT — The bomb that tore through downtown Beirut on Friday killed a prominent Lebanese politician who was a key critic of the Syrian government. The attack unleashed political recriminations that threaten the fragile understanding keeping the Syrian war from spilling outright into Lebanon.
Mohammed Chatah, a former finance minister and ambassador to the United States, was one of the closest advisers to Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, another opponent of the Syrian leadership whose assassination in a 2005 bombing touched off the March 14 protest movement that helped end Syria’s 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
On Friday, Saad Hariri, himself a former prime minister, and his March 14 political allies issued statements implying the Syrian government or its ally Hezbollah were responsible for the bombing, which killed at least six people and wounded dozens, and drew parallels to the killing of Rafik Hariri, for which the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon has indicted four Hezbollah operatives.
The accusations were electric in a country that is deeply divided over Syria, with Hariri’s Future bloc, the main Sunni party, backing the opponents of President Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that is also Lebanon’s most powerful political party, supporting him.
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Syria’s conflict has already touched Lebanon. Street fighting has erupted in the northern city of Tripoli. Car bombings in the southern suburbs of Beirut have been widely blamed on Syrian insurgents or their backers.
Hezbollah has sent fighters into combat alongside Syrian forces and accused the Future bloc of backing Lebanese militants who have joined insurgents across the porous border.
In such a climate, Lebanese politicians on both sides of the divide said the country could ill afford the loss of Chatah, 62. He was regarded even by opponents as a moderate who could foster dialogue across political and sectarian lines, and was taking part in talks to end the political impasse that has left Lebanon without a government for months.
Hezbollah condemned the attack as an attempt to sow divisions in Lebanon, and its leaders, along with Syrian officials, called the accusations against them dangerous and irresponsible.
From 2005 to 2008, long before the conflict in Syria, Lebanon was ravaged by an acrimonious political struggle, with numerous assassinations of mainly anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. That conflict pitted Hezbollah and its Syrian allies against the Hariri coterie of pro-Western politicians.
Today, those divisions have been magnified by the war in Syria and the larger regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that helps fuel it.
The bombing Friday was the first to mar Beirut’s shiny renovated downtown since Rafik Hariri’s murder, which occurred nearby.
Chatah, a prominent economist, had served as ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2000, worked at the International Monetary Fund and had been a spokesman for the Lebanese government. Born in Tripoli, he was married, with two children.
On his blog he recently warned that Assad could never reform or restore stability to Syria, and that his ally Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, would prefer a prolonged and spreading war to letting him fall. That, he wrote, “will help terrorism flourish even more. Both the kind manipulated and used by the regime to blackmail the West and the ‘authentic’ strain that festers and spreads in open wounds, like opportunistic parasites.”