Syria critic and former Communist Party leader George Hawi was assassinated Tuesday morning by a bomb under the seat of his Mercedes, just days after the nation elected its first legislature independent of Syrian control in decades.
Hawi joins a string of Syria opponents killed or injured by car bombs in recent months. Tuesday's blast was similar to the bombing that killed prominent anti-Syria journalist Samir Kassir this month.
Syria, which until recently kept thousands of troops in Lebanon and wielded control here, denounced the attack on Hawi. However, politicians who have reported ongoing Syrian meddling were quick to blame Damascus and its remaining proxies in the Lebanese government for Tuesday's attack.
"It's the Lebanese security system, the remnants, the [Syrian] tutelage," Farouk Dahrouj, also a former leader of the Communist Party, told New TV.
Hawi, 67, was riding in his car about 10 a.m. on a side street lined with shops when a bomb planted beneath the passenger seat of his car was detonated, echoing through the middle-class and mainly Muslim neighborhood in West Beirut.
Hawi's wife dashed into the street from her nearby ophthalmology clinic, reached the scene of the bombing and fainted. His driver was wounded, bloodied and hysterical. He struggled to pull Hawi from the car and screamed his name.
The attack brought a fresh sense of despair to Lebanon, where political leaders have been struggling to eliminate Syria's influence. Any cautious optimism generated by the elections has been washed out by this month's assassinations and a resurgence of sectarian tensions.
"It's an arbitrary killing. It's a vengeful killing," said Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese lawyer. "It's a message: 'If you think that Lebanon is out of the woods and starting on a new era of democracy and independence, you're wrong. We're still here.' "
Tuesday's assassination also sharpened fears that Syrian agents or allies remain active inside Lebanon, blending into the scenery long after the April withdrawal of soldiers and the shuttering of Syrian intelligence offices.
"We are stunned," Prime Minister Najib Mikati told reporters. "With every achievement by the Lebanese state, we see that there are those who want to target security and send messages of this sort."
En route to Brussels 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 an atmosphere of instability.
"I don't know who is responsible for this ... but there is a context and an atmosphere of instability," she told reporters. "Syria's activities are part of that context and a part of that atmosphere and they need to knock it off."
She attributed the mood to a continued uncertainty about Syrian activities in Lebanon.
"Yes, their military forces, their visible forces are gone," she said. "Yet they are still clearly acting in Lebanon and they are still a force that is not a stabilizing force there."
Hawi was head of the Lebanese Communist Party during the 15-year civil war that sputtered to an end in 1990. During the long years of sectarian slaughter, the Greek Orthodox politician's predominantly Christian militia teamed up with leftist Muslims and Palestinians to battle rival Christian militias that were allied with Israel.
Hawi was regarded as an ally of the Syrian regime during the 1980s, but had more recently become an outspoken critic of Syrian interference. Although he was a prominent figure with a well-known past, he was not seen as a crucial operator in Beirut's current political jockeying. His assassination suggested that Hawi was a soft target, an accessible alternative to the more prominent leaders, most of whom have wrapped themselves in the protection of vast, armed security details.
"No one is safe. They're trying to divide the country," said Wafa Haidar, a 28-year-old legal secretary who was among the curious, angry crowd milling near the site of the blast. "Unfortunately, if I've learned anything in these past months, it's that absolutely nothing is impossible anymore."
After the bombing, the car rolled to a stop in front of Rabih Aish's falafel shop.
"I ran to the car and recognized Hawi," said Aish, 24. "There was blood everywhere. He was twitching. I went back inside my shop and called the emergency services. The chauffeur was crying and trying to get Hawi out of the car. I told him, 'What are you going to do? He's in pieces.' "
The attack came just after Saad Hariri, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, had burst into popularity with promises to steer Lebanon out of the shadow of Syrian control. Saad 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.
Syria was widely blamed here for killing the elder Hariri in February with a massive truck bomb, though it denied any role. Hariri's death shattered the fear of speaking out against Syria, and inspired thousands of Lebanese to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. Embarrassed and set upon by intense international pressure, Syrian President Bashar Assad was forced to withdraw his soldiers from Lebanon.
But Lebanon is left with a daunting project: It must create an independent government that apportions power among religious groups without provoking the sectarian tensions that have historically led to violence.
The Lebanese government resigned early Tuesday so that a new government could be appointed by parliament. Lawmakers will soon have to decide the fate of key Syria allies who remain in top posts: President Emile Lahoud and Speaker Nabih Berri.
A United Nations investigator began questioning the chief of Lebanon's Presidential Guards on Tuesday as part of an ongoing probe into Hariri's death. The brigade has long been seen as an instrument of Syrian control. Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, the commander and the most senior pro-Syria security chief still in power, has been accused of negligence or even participation in the attack on Hariri. His home and office were searched by U.N. investigators.
Lahoud "should resign. He is the head of the serpent," said Nour Jurdi, a 54-year-old government employee who stood behind the cordon, looking at the blasted Mercedes. "If you have a referendum here, 80% of the people will say he should leave. What has he done for us? Who is running the country when people get blown up? How dare he stay in power?"
Times staff writer Stack reported from Cairo and special correspondent Abouzeid from Beirut. Staff writer Tyler Marshall in Brussels contributed to this report.