A protest against power cuts to southern Beirut – cuts the power company denies making – escalated into a riot when protesters blocked roads and threw stones at police and the army who were trying to maintain order.
Southern Beirut is a Hizbullah stronghold but it is not certain that the violence was connected exclusively to the political crisis involving the election of a president that would be acceptable to both the Hizbullah led opposition and the majority March 14th forces. Then again, one can hardly dismiss the idea that this was a demonstration organized by Hizbullah which had recently promised “decisive action” in the streets in order to force the government to accede to their demands.
Both sides are currently in a standoff over the issue with the government proposing Army Chief Michel Suleiman for the post while the Syrian backed opposition opposes his election, still maintaining that any government formed by the new president must give them enough ministers to have veto power over the majority’s decisions.
There were reports of snipers firing from rooftop positions into the crowd below. One of their targets was an opposition Amal official:
Among the victims was an official from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal movement. The others were four Hizbullah activists, a rescue worker and a civilian.
The official was identified as Ahmad Hamza, Amal’s representative in Hay Mouawwad quarter of Shiyah, where protests first broke out at around 4 pm.
“Hamza has passed away after being shot in the back,” an Amal official told AFP, adding that he was unable to identify the source of the fire.
The bloodshed came amid fears of civil unrest in Lebanon which has been gripped by a prolonged presidential crisis, and two days after a massive car bombing killed a top intelligence officer and four other people.
The intelligence officer, Wassam Eid, was involved in terrorism investigations. He was reportedly assisting the International Tribunal in their investigation of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and other murders of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.
The riot quickly spread from Beirut to the suburbs where the rioters blocked roads and threw stones at cars and police vehicles:
The army shut down many roads to stop the protests from spreading, and soldiers also took positions on rooftops.
But as night fell, riots spread to reach the airport highway, where demonstrators cut the main road with burning tires. Soon afterwards protesters cut the Mar Elias road in west Beirut while gunfire rang out sporadically across the southern suburbs.
Riots also reached south Lebanon, where the coastal highway between Sidon and Tyre was closed by blazing tires.
The road to Baalbek in east Lebanon’s Bekaa valley was also briefly closed.
A car that had been set ablaze exploded, triggering panic in Beirut where only two days ago a massive car bombing killed a top anti-terror officer and four other people.
A top security official warned the riots could spread unless politicians reined in their supporters.
What sparked the riot? Evidently, the old Hizbullah gambit of closing the road to the airport – something they have done before in their street protests. Only this time, the army intervened:
The unrest broke out after demonstrators set ablaze tires, blocking a main road linking the Shiyah and Mar Mikhael neighborhoods to protest at power shortages.
The army fired warning shots to disperse the demonstrators, a security official said.
Witnesses said that gunmen in the crowd opened fire at the security forces who retaliated.
Premier Fouad Saniora declared Monday a day of national mourning and ordered schools and universities closed.
As of today, it is unclear how many or if any of the demonstrators were killed by the army and how many by rooftop snipers who were apparently caught on tape and shown on Lebanese television.
Lebanese bloggers are weighing in offering analysis and mostly bemoaning what appears to be the powerlessness of the government to stop the murders. Mustapha at Beirut Spring offers some speculation about the rooftop snipers:
The puzzle has a missing piece. It seems that a third party wants to stir things up by breaking the balance of restraint between the Lebanese parties. As political analyst Ossama Safa puts it: â€œThis is the work of agents provocateurs â€” someone is in there stirring trouble [..] I really think they want to get a hold of the situation. But someone, somewhere is doing this.â€
The politicians will try to calm the situation. But expect a lot hot-headed blame to be tossed around.
And the fact that Hizbullah is now pointing the finger directly at the army is very significant. Could the opposition had staged the protest, started the riot by firing at the army from inside the crowd, and assured even more anger by having snipers pick off Hamza all to discredit General Suleiman? I would say it a more likely scenario than March 14th forces trying to deliberately start a civil war.
Abu Kais wants the government to start telling the truth about the violence:
Many of us have their own suspects. It doesn’t take a genius to point the finger at Syrian intelligenceâ€”the motives are there, and the methods too predictable. Yet despite all this obviousness, we ultimately sink in confusion because no one is willing to present an official account of what happened, and who did it. It’s always swept under the rug of “investigation”. Killers roam free and kill again while being “under investigation”. And the argument against Syrian culpability weakens, because not even the official authorities are able to point the finger.
Needless to say, we are tired of it all. If this is war, then could someone involve the dying public in the details of the fight? This public cannot subsist on the same old indirect accusations. Instead of declaring a day of mourning, how about a day of truth? How about teaching the interior minister how to speak? How about the army commander, instead of phoning the dictator next door, be asked to report to the defense minister and to the public? Is the enemy so powerful that we are afraid to at least give it the media treatment we have given Israelis when they were doing the killing?
And to underscore that point, Daily Star editorial page editor Michael Young interviewed former UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis who was the first prosecutor appointed as part of the International Tribunal and whose initial investigation implicated high level Syrian ministers in the plot to kill Hariri. Mehlis was disappointed in the subsequent investigations of the Tribunal:
Mehlis, who was the first U.N. chief investigator, has said in his reports that the Hariri plot’s complexity suggested that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services had a role, but [Serge] Brammertz has not echoed his view. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have been under arrest for almost two years for alleged involvement in the murder.
In his final appearance before the U.N. Security Council in December, Brammertz said that progress made in the last few months has enabled investigators to identify “a number of persons of interest” who may have been involved in some aspect of the crime—or knew about the preparations.
The investigation “appears to have lost the momentum it had until January 2006,” Mehlis said in the interview. “When I left we were ready to name suspects, but it seems not to have progressed from that stage.”
“If you have suspects you don’t allow them to roam free for years to tamper with evidence,” Mehlis told The Wall Street Journal.
Indeed, for a while Brammertz seemed to be treating the Syrian government with kid gloves, praising their “cooperation” with the Tribunal while hinting that no Syrian ministers would be charged in the assassination. There was also evidence that Brammertz refused to follow up some leads with regards to Palestinian involvement in the crime.
All the violence takes place against the backdrop of an Arab League attempt to get the two sides to agree on a presidential candidate. Secretary Moussa will travel to Lebanon again this week to continue his fruitless search for a compromise acceptable to Syria and the opposition.
Meanwhile, the murders continue, the two sides become even more entrenched and the citizens of Lebanon are on edge wondering what will come next. The Blacksmiths of Lebanon outline the endgame:
The attacks on our institutions continue with the aim of dismantling the Lebanese state and replacing it with a quasi-Syrian province [slash] Iranian paramilitary front.
Thanks to the inviability of these plans and the historically proven inability of any one side [this time Hizballah] to impose its will on the rest of the Lebanese political/sectarian groupings, these plans will most likely fail. The issue remains, however: what will it cost our country before they do? Syria, Iran and their quislings in Lebanon [starting with Nasrallah, Berri, Aoun, and going all the way down to “the Qansos”, Wahhab, and Franjieh] continue to work to ensure that price is high.
It is best if the western powers who continue their strong backing of prime minister Siniora remember that these are the stakes in play.