George Hawi survived Lebanon's 15-year civil war. He made it through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And he outlasted Soviet purges of...

Share story

BEIRUT, Lebanon — George Hawi survived Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. He made it through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And he outlasted Soviet purges of the Lebanese Communist Party.

But Hawi, a former Communist Party leader, could not survive the latest twists of this country’s treacherous politics. As he drove through a crowded Beirut neighborhood yesterday, Hawi was killed by a remote-controlled bomb placed underneath his car.

Once a close Syrian ally, Hawi began criticizing Syria’s political and military dominance over Lebanon in the late 1990s. Opposition leaders yesterday quickly blamed Hawi’s assassination on Syria and its allies in the Lebanese security services.

Hawi was the most prominent politician killed in Lebanon since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That killing prompted international pressure and popular protests that led to the resignation of the Syrian-backed Lebanese prime minister and to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29-year presence. On June 2, journalist Samir Kassir was assassinated with a remote-controlled bomb similar to the one that killed Hawi.

“This series of assassinations will continue as long as the Syrian-dominated security agencies remain intact,” said Samir Franjieh, an opposition leader. “They must be purged.”

Lebanon’s anti-Syrian opposition, which won a majority in Parliament during elections that ended Sunday, hopes to use its new political clout to remove the last vestiges of Syrian influence.

The opposition’s main targets are the Syrian-backed Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, and the country’s security services.

The Bush administration, which led international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops, stopped just short of directly blaming Syria for the killings.

“Syria’s long and continued presence inside Lebanon has created an environment of intimidation and political repression,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in Washington, D.C.

En route to Brussels, Belgium, for a conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States had no information on who carried out the assassination but accused Syria of contributing to instability.

“I don’t know who is responsible for this … but there is a context and an atmosphere of instability,” she told reporters hours after the assassination while en route to a conference on Iraq. “Syria’s activities are part of that context and a part of that atmosphere and they need to knock it off.”

Opposition leaders say Syrian intelligence agents are still operating in Lebanon and that they have a “hit list” of prominent officials. “Why do all the assassinations target the opposition?” asked Ghazi Aridi, an opposition member of Parliament.

Lahoud, the embattled president, tried to distance himself from the Lebanese security services yesterday, saying they are not under his “direct control.”

Yesterday a United Nations team investigating Hariri’s killing questioned Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, head of the Lebanese Presidential Guards.

Investigators also searched Hamdan’s home and office, with Lahoud’s approval. Hamdan is the only one of six top Lebanese security officials who remains in office since Hariri’s assassination.

Hawi, 67, a Greek Orthodox Christian, started out as a student activist and joined the Communist Party in his late 20s. By the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, he had become the party’s leader. He was allied with Palestinian guerrillas and leftist Muslim militias in their fight against the Lebanese army and right-wing Christian factions.

During the 1982 Israeli invasion, Hawi joined forces with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization to defend West Beirut from an Israeli siege.

When the civil war ended in 1990, Hawi began reaching out to his former enemies and held dialogues with Muslim and Christian clerics. After a series of late-night bombings in March, which targeted mainly Christian neighborhoods, Hawi stepped up his criticism of Syria.

The attack came just as Saad Hariri, son of assassinated Rafik Hariri, had burst to popularity with promises to steer Lebanon out of the shadow of Syrian control.

Hariri, a 35-year-old businessman, inherited his father’s mantle as head of the Sunni Muslim community. His anti-Syria bloc swept the vote in northern Lebanon on Sunday, and will control the majority of Parliament.

The Lebanese government resigned early yesterday so that a new government could be appointed by Parliament.

Additional information from The Washington Post