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Lebanon Squelches Security Problems

LEBANON'S decision on Monday to break off diplomatic relations with Iraq was a clear signal from the Beirut government that the days are gone when assassins and bombers could wreak havoc in Lebanon and get off scot-free.

The Lebanese authorities are convinced that Iraqi intelligence agents, posing as Iraqi Embassy officials, were directly involved in the assassination in Beirut last week of an Iraqi opposition leader, Taleb al-Suheil.

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The Beirut government intends not only to close down the embassy, but also to put on trial two Iraqi diplomats already detained in connection with the murder - despite legal questions concerning diplomatic immunity - and to arrest two or three other suspects if they try to leave the embassy compound.

The uncompromising action over the Iraqi Embassy affair is in fact the latest of many signs of absolute determination by Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri's government to crack down hard on any security infractions. Confidence in the country's stability is a prerequisite for the kind of business boom that Mr. Hariri is trying to foster.

``One thing is 100 percent certain - we will not compromise our security at all, with anybody,'' Hariri said in an interview with the Monitor.

Asked whether Lebanon would have reacted similarly if the alleged assassins had turned out to be Syrians, he pointed out that two Syrian soldiers are expected to be hanged shortly after being condemned to death for the murder of a Christian jeweler.

Lebanon has been shaken by a number of security incidents in recent months, raising fears of a slide back into the anarchy of the war years of 1975-1990. They include the bombing of a Phalangist Party (the mainly Christian party) office in East Beirut in December, the murder of the Jordanian charge d'affaires in January, and the explosion at a Maronite Christian church in February in which 11 people died.

These actions have triggered a Draconian reaction from the security forces. Christians, Muslims, and Palestinians alike have been arrested in connection with some of the incidents. A climate has been created where potential wrong-doers know they will be actively tracked down and punished harshly if caught.

In the affair of the murdered Jordanian diplomat, a number of suspects from Abu Nidal's once Syrian-backed radical Palestinian group have been arrested and should stand trial soon.

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This weekend, a group of activists from the Muslim fundamentalist Jamaat Islamiyya (Islamic Group) received long prison sentences with hard labor for a series of bomb attacks on beach complexes in the north of the country.

Last week, a Lebanese Army corporal, who also belonged to Hizbullah (a pro-Iranian Shiite militia), was given a life sentence with hard labor for the murder in 1986 of the French military attache. It was the first such sentence relating to the killing of Western diplomats in Beirut during the war years.

The bomb attacks in East Beirut have triggered a stringent clamp-down against the remnants of the dissolved Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, though there's still no evidence that it was involved in the bombing.

Civil rights lawyers are concerned about multiplying reports of torture and maltreatment of suspects by the security forces. They say that both the military, at the Defense Ministry, and the police at certain West Beirut barracks, have used electric shocks and beatings with increasing frequency.

The government's summary decision to ban all news and current affairs programs on the multitude of private TV and radio stations, and its refusal to issue a permit for a protest demonstration planned for next week by the trades union federation and other groups, have raised fears for Lebanon's traditions of free speech and political activity.

But for Prime Minister Hariri, security is the overriding priority. ``The security problems we are having are like mines left over the from the war,'' he said. ``We are in a transition period, getting rid of the habits of war. That is bound to cause some upsets - the Lebanese are not used to it. But life goes on, and our strong central government is getting stronger every day.''

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