A powerful car bomb tore through a business district in the center of the Lebanese capital Friday, killing a prominent pro-Western politician and at least five other people. The assassination will likely hike sectarian tensions in the country, already soaring because of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The blast, which wounded more than 70 others, set cars ablaze, shredded trees and shattered windows in a main street of the posh downtown Beirut area, home to five-star hotels, luxury high-rises and high-end boutiques. It sent a pall of thick black smoke above the nearby government headquarters.
The bomb targeted the car of Mohammed Chatah, a former finance minister and a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, security officials said. Chatah, his driver and four others were killed, the National News Agency said.
Hariri, a Sunni politician, heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon, which is engaged in a bitter feud with the Shia Hezbollah group, a top ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hariri accused Hezbollah of involvement in Friday's bomb attack.
"As far as we are concerned the suspects ... are those who are fleeing international justice and refusing to represent themselves before the international tribunal," Hariri said, referring to five Hezbollah suspects indicted for the 2005 killing of his father Rafik, also a former prime minister.
More recently, the country has seen a wave of violence as Lebanon's Sunni and Shia communities support their brethren on opposing sides in Syria's civil war. That has fueled predictions that Lebanon, still recovering from its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is on the brink of descending into more serious sectarian violence.
"We received the criminals' bloody message, and we reply that Lebanon will remain free as tyrants will fall," said Fouad Saniora, the head of the March 14 group, an anti-Hezbollah political coalition.
The Friday morning blast was heard across the city, shattering the calm of the downtown commercial district.
"We heard an explosion that shook us like an earthquake," Wajdi Abdul-Khaliq, a foreman at a nearby construction site, to the AP. He said he ran out of the site and saw several wounded in the street, including a woman in her car who lost her hand.
The army cordoned off the area to prevent people from getting close to the scene, where the twisted wreckage of several cars was still smoldering. The National News Agency said the explosion was the result of a car bomb, but security officials said they had no immediate confirmation.
Footage broadcast on Lebanese TV showed medical workers rushing the wounded to ambulances. At least two bodies could be seen lying on the pavement. The Health Ministry said more than 70 people were wounded.
Security officials said Chatah was on the way to a meeting at Hariri's downtown residence when the bomb hit.
The 62-year-old Chatah was a prominent economist who once worked at the International Monetary Fund in the U.S. and later served as Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. He was one of the closest aides of Rafik Hariri.
He later became finance minister when Saad took over the premiership and stayed on as his senior adviser after he lost the post in early 2011.
Friday's blast came less than three weeks before the trial for those suspected in Rafik Hariri's assassination was set to begin. Five Hezbollah members have been accused of involvement in the killing. Hezbollah rejects the accusations, and has refused to hand over the suspects.
Hariri's 2005 assassination sparked massive demonstrations that eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, following nearly three decades of military presence.
Chatah’s last tweet, posted an hour before Friday's explosion, read: "Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs."
Syrian Kurds Agree To Side With Opposition in Geneva Talks
Despite an atmosphere of deep mutual distrust, two major rival Syrian Kurdish bodies have agreed to attend an expected international conference on the fate of Syria, known as Geneva II, on the side of the Syrian opposition forces, Syrian Kurdish sources told IPS.
That is contingent on the possibility that only two sides will be allowed to sit at the negotiating table: the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition groups.
Although the decision represents a significant change of direction on the part of the deeply-divided Syrian Kurds, there are serious doubts as to whether the agreement between the Western Kurdistan People’s Council (WKPC) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) will actually be implemented.
While the WKPC is perceived to have some sort of understanding with Assad’s regime, the KNC is close to the rest of the Syrian opposition groups.
The Geneva II conference, scheduled to be held on Jan. 22, is backed by the western powers, Russia, the United Nations and the Arab League.
The international community hopes that the conference will pave the way for an interim government and end the bloody conflict in Syria that has claimed over 100,000 lives so far, according to U.N. figures.
There is no concrete agreement yet on whether Syrians will take part in the conference in the form of two or more negotiating groups.
But if there will be more than two Syrian sides at the Geneva II conference, then Kurds will seek to participate as a separate independent bloc, IPS has learned from Syrian Kurdish sources.
“Geneva II is an important station where the future of Syria will be determined,” Abdulsalam Ahmed, the co-chairperson of the WKPC, told IPS.
He was in Erbil for eight days of intense talks with KNC representatives over participation in the Geneva conference and a possible power-sharing deal between the two Kurdish bodies to administer the Kurdish territories of Syria.
The WKPC is close to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose military wing, known as the People’s Defense Units (YPG), controls much of the Kurdish areas in the northern and northeastern parts of Syria.
“As Kurds we are an important actor on the ground and need to be represented,” added Ahmed, who warned that the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved until the Kurdish question is addressed.
For Kurds, the Geneva II conference bears more significance than merely an attempt to end Syria’s civil war, which they have largely managed to avoid getting involved in.
It has resurrected memories of rather similar international gatherings in France’s Sevres and Switzerland’s Lausanne at the turn of the last century that brought about disastrous results for Kurds and subjugated them to the harsh rule of governments in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
“Geneva II, as an international gathering, is a new Sevres [Treaty in 1920 in France] and Sykes-Picot [treaty], and we cannot afford to be absent from that meeting,” said Nuri Brimo, a leading official of the KNC, much of whose senior leadership is based outside Syria, mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Sykes-Picot was a treaty between Britain and France to draw the map of the new Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.
“Syria will either survive as a united country or be further fragmented after the conference… In any case, we will have to be present there,” added Brimo.
“Our message to the international community is that we as the second-largest ethnicity in Syria want our rights to be recognized… We don’t want Syria to be fragmented. We need to be a major player in the Syrian equation and the country’s future.”
Syria’s Kurdish politics
The Kurdish political scene in Syria is deeply fragmented and highly complex. The WKPC and KNC each represent a number of often loosely-allied groups. The two bodies have been at odds with each other since the start of the Syrian uprising nearly three years ago and often trade harsh accusations over the other side’s loyalties and agenda.
The KNC charges that the WKPC and its major component, PYD, have struck a deal with Assad’s government and as such have betrayed the opposition’s cause of toppling Assad.
Until the March 2011 uprising, the Assad regime denied Syrian Kurds basic cultural and ethnic rights, and tens of thousands of them were even denied citizenship.
The root of suspicions toward the PYD lies in the manner of its military takeover of the Kurdish areas of Syria in the summer of 2012.
While the PYD and its supporters claim they “liberated” those areas following military confrontations with the Syrian army and security forces, the KNC and Syrian opposition groups say Assad handed over control of those areas to the PYD in order to use his troops to fight rebel groups in other parts of the country.
They argue that as Turkey’s support for Syrian rebel groups, including Islamists, increased, Assad conceded de facto control of much of the Syrian Kurdish regions to the PYD in an effort to counterbalance Turkish intervention in Syrian affairs.
The PYD is widely seen as close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that has been fighting the Turkish government for Kurdish rights for around three decades.
PYD and WKPC supporters, on the other hand, are quick to point out that the KNC is close to the Sunni-Arab dominated Syrian opposition groups, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani.
The non-Kurdish Syrian opposition groups are largely loath to state their position vis-à-vis Kurdish rights in the future Syria.
The PYD also accuses the KNC of advancing the agendas of Barzani and Turkey and not the genuine interests of Syrian Kurds.
This state of deep divisions and mistrust that has overshadowed the intra-Syrian Kurdish relations has led many Syrian Kurds not to place much hope on any deal between the WKPC and the KNC.
In the past, small skirmishes have taken place between PYD forces and supporters of parties within the KNC ranks, resulting in some casualties.
“The situation [after the recent Erbil talks] is going to be like before. The conflict between them [i.e. PYD and KNC] continues,” said Siruan H. Hussein, a Syrian Kurdish journalist and director of ARTA FM, a community radio station based in the predominantly Kurdish town of Amuda in Syria.
“The PYD is not going to share military power and financial resources and… control of the self-rule administration with the KNC.”
The PYD recently declared the establishment of an autonomous administration to manage the areas under its control.
Despite the rising fortunes of al-Qaeda-allied Islamist forces in Syria, the PYD has successfully battled those groups and wrestled control of chunks of territory from them.
As many parts of Syria have experienced heavy devastation as a result of the conflict there, PYD-controlled areas have been spared much of the destruction.
POSTED AT 8:31 AM ON DECEMBER 27, 2013 BY ED MORRISSEY
Today’s news starts off with two bombings in war zones. In Beirut, it appears that Hezbollah has taken revenge for an earlier bombing by al-Qaeda on the Iranian embassy by targeting a political opponent of the Iranian proxy terrorist group. A car bomb assassinated Mohamad Chatah, a former finance minister and ally of pro-Western anti-Assad activist Saad Hariri:
A strong car bomb tore through a business district in the center of the Lebanese capital Friday, setting cars ablaze and killing a prominent pro-Western politician and four other people.
The bomb targeted Mohamad Chatah, a former finance minister and a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in his car as he drove through central Beirut, Lebanon’s National News Agency said, confirming what security sources had told numerous foreign news agencies. Chatah was also a former ambassador to the U.S. …
Hariri heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon, which is engaged in bitter feuding with the militant Hezbollah group, which is allied to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Several recent bombings have targeted senior Hezbollah figures or districts where the Shiite group dominates.
In a statement Friday, Hariri implicitly accused Hezbollah of killing Chatah in the explosion and warned, “Those who assassinated (Chatah) … want to assassinate Lebanon.”
The two bombings are not connected. Both show, however, that the conflicts in their respective regions are at risk of spiraling further out of control. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai has all but sabotaged any effort by the Obama administration to negotiate a continuing NATO presence after the 2014 stand-down date on combat operations. As this shows, trusting the Taliban to negotiate isn’t a winning strategy.
The situation in Beirut is worse. Lebanon struggled for years to rid itself of civil war, only to find itself under the thumb of Assad in Syria. Now with Assad under fire, Lebanon finds itself a proxy battlefield for the fight between the Iranian satellites of Hezbollah and Assad on one hand, and the Sunni terrorists of al-Qaeda and its allies on the other. The assassination of high-ranking political figures sounds very much like a return to chaos for Lebanon, unless the Lebanese can push both sides out of its country quickly — which would take a miracle. The cancer of Syria’s civil war is metastasizing.
The December 31 ultimatum demanding Afghan President Hamid Karzai authorize an open-ended occupation or lose all US military support at the end of 2014 didn’t work, so now officials are trying a different tack.
“My judgment is no troops, no aid,” warned US Ambassador James Dobbins, who insisted that political support for humanitarian aid was entirely tied to the presence of occupation forces, and that if Karzai doesn’t sign off, the Afghan government will lose billions in aid.
US officials are playing up what a “disaster” the loss of aid would be for Afghanistan, while insisting that the everyday lives of Afghans is dramatically improved because of US largesse.
That claim seems unwarranted, and the Afghans are likely to see it the same way. While many in the Karzai government got rich off the corrupt contractor deals, Afghanistan is still a wreck 12+ years into the occupation, and most of the aid has notoriously gone into building projects Afghans didn’t need or want.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office has issued a statement of strong condemnation today following the latest US drone strike, which killed four in North Waziristan Agency on Christmas night.
Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam complained that the strikes are in violation of international law and reiterated Pakistani government calls to end such strikes.
The news from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwah (K-P) Province is mostly unchanged, with K-P demonstrators continuing an anti-drone protest that is now in its 34th day, blocking NATO supply routes through the Khyber Pass until all attacks are halted.
Imran Khan, organizer of the K-P protests and head of the K-P’s ruling party, insists the demonstrations will continue as long as necessary, and that his party, which ran a campaign centered around opposition to the drones, would continue to support the protesters unconditionally.
Fresh off of yesterday’s declaration of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization,” the Egyptian junta is arresting members of the Brotherhood’s political wing by the dozens on charges of “belonging to a terrorist organization.”
At least one member of the last elected Egyptian parliament wasamong the detainees, and police also arrested a number of people for handing out leaflets supporting the group and criticizing the ban.
The junta’s interior ministry has also issued a warning that any verbal expression of support for the Muslim Brotherhood is now a terrorist offense, and that even possession of literature associated with the group would carry a five year prison sentence.
Though much of the group’s leadership was arrested for anti-coup protests long ago, the latest ruling seems designed to complete the purge of the group, and to scare people away from demonstrations. It came with an edict granting the military new powers to crack down on public protests.
Analysts have also expressed concern that the crackdown could radicalize the Muslim Brotherhood’s remnants, convincing some that since they’re already officially “terrorists” there is really no additional risk to resorting to violence instead of demonstrating peacefully.