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The assassination of Rafik Hariri: Lebanon's Shakespearean tragedy

Hariri, a clumsy, self-made billionaire and former premier, has in death become the symbol of Lebanese defiance.

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On Valentine's Day, 2005, business tycoon and former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri met a fiery death when his motorcade was engulfed in flames as it drove along the picturesque Beirut seafront. In Killing Mr. Lebanon, Nicholas Blanford, Lebanon correspondent for The Times (of London) and this newspaper, investigates the fatal blast and its political ramifications.

The affable Mr. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician and successful entrepreneur, was a beloved figure whose death galvanized Lebanese opposition to Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Because "Syria's rulers never accepted the notion of an independent Lebanon," and the Syrian regime suspected Hariri of colluding with its Lebanese opponents, Syria came to figure prominently in virtually all theories about Hariri's assassination.

"Killing Mr. Lebanon" does not resolve that mystery. Though Mr. Blanford airs the suspicions of many that the Syrian regime was responsible, he does not theorize as to the culprits' identity. And in many respects, it is still too early for any definitive account of Hariri's assassination, as the fallout of the killing continues to jolt the region.

Blanford had to end his account somewhere, and he chose the first anniversary of Hariri's murder. Of course, the assassination itself receives its share of attention; the play-by-play account of the explosion brims with luridly cinematic detail. But of far greater import (given that Blanford doesn't offer anything significant about the assassination not contained in the UN investigative reports) is the discussion of the behind-the-scenes machinations preceding Feb. 14 in both Syria and Lebanon.

Blanford's insights into the secretive, mercurial Syrian regime are intriguing. Contrary to expectation, Bashar al-Assad's rise to power created a more sectarian atmosphere among the ruling clique than had been the case under his father, Hafez.

The Syrian Baath Party has always been based on a nucleus of loyal Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect accounting for 11 to 15 percent of Syria's population and historically oppressed by the Sunni Muslim majority. Under Mr. Assad, the Baath regime has apparently further cemented its Alawite character. Hariri, a Sunni, was seen by the paranoid Assad and his acolytes as a threat not only to their control of Lebanon, but to Syria itself, where a Sunni majority chafes under minority Alawite rule.

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