WASHINGTON -- Only 17 days after his election opened the way for possible reconciliation in war-torn Lebanon, President Rene Mouawad was killed Wednesday when a massive bomb exploded as his motorcade drove through West Beirut.
“It is a national disaster,” Prime Minister Salim Hoss, his voice cracking with emotion, declared in a national radio address. “President Mouawad was assassinated by the hand of treason.”
At least 23 others, including 10 presidential bodyguards, were killed in the explosion, according to Lebanese police.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, and a U.S. counterterrorism official noted: “The list of possible suspects is pretty long.”
Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, the Maronite Christian army commander, had vigorously contested the new government headed by Mouawad. Druze and Shiite Muslim factions, as well as the government of Iran, also had denounced the process of his selection.
U.S. and Lebanese officials immediately expressed fears of a renewed round of violence in retaliation for Mouawad’s assassination.
Police said the bomb was planted in a small shop and was detonated by remote control. The blast was so powerful that it threw the president’s bulletproof Mercedes limousine several yards off Bustros Boulevard in Sanayeh, a neighborhood in Muslim-dominated West Beirut.
Mouawad’s 10-car motorcade, which had just departed from celebrations of Lebanon’s independence from France on Nov. 22, 1943, included Hoss and Speaker of Parliament Hussein Husseini, neither of whom was hurt.
The assassination is a major blow to Arab League efforts to reconcile the divided Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon after almost 15 years of sectarian strife.
Just last month, Lebanon’s Parliament agreed to an Arab League formula for redistributing the balance of power among the nation’s 17 recognized religious sects during a special summit in Taif, Saudi Arabia.
The Taif accord was followed by Mouawad’s election as president Nov. 5 over the objections of Aoun, the army commander who had ruled the country for more than a year as acting prime minister.
Mouawad, 64, was known as a quiet and conciliatory politician. A Maronite Christian who advocated coexistence among Lebanon’s warring factions, he was first elected to Parliament in 1957 and served in three Cabinet positions between 1961 and 1982.
“No one can hate Rene,” said a lifelong friend. “He is a chameleon who speaks everybody’s language . . . like a professional diplomat.”
En route to a speaking engagement in Memphis, Tenn., President Bush said the United States “condemns” the assassination as “disgraceful and terroristic.”
“However, we must not let this brutal killing stand in the way of trying to bring peace to the troubled corner of the world,” the President said. “I would like to offer the help of America . . . to bring these killers to justice.”
Arab League spokesman Clovis Maksoud said the 22-nation group would try to help convene another extraordinary session of Lebanon’s Parliament to elect a new president, possibly as early as this weekend.
“It is crucial that this cruel interruption does not develop into a breakdown,” Maksoud said in an interview. “I think the Lebanese people are sufficiently jolted and traumatized by this tragedy to realize that it has brought them close to the crossroads--to fragmentation or to national cohesion.”
The three leading candidates for the presidency, a position traditionally held by a Maronite Christian, are Elias Harawi, a member of Parliament; former President Suleiman Franjieh, and George Saade, president of the Christian Falangist Party, according to informed Lebanese sources.
Maksoud and other Lebanese officials expressed confidence that the 72 members of Parliament, last elected in 1972, would not be intimidated from participating in another presidential election. Because of the strife in their homeland, several now live in Europe, and not all cast votes in the most recent election.
Prime Minister Hoss, himself the target of a 1984 bombing, and Speaker Husseini immediately convened an emergency meeting of Lebanese leaders to discuss new elections.
Despite President Bush’s offer of assistance, U.S. officials indicated that Washington’s role would be limited to long-distance support.
“We will continue to support efforts to restore a functioning government in Lebanon,” said John H. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, in testimony before a congressional subcommittee. “We hope the spirit of reconciliation that was represented by the installation of the new government will survive this morning’s terrible act.”
The assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, also in a bombing, just before he took office in September, 1982, was one of a series of events that prompted the Administration of former President Ronald Reagan to send a special envoy as well as U.S. Marines to Lebanon to facilitate peace efforts.
In the aftermath of the latest assassination, the United States will support Hoss, Kelly said.
The newly formed government had been contested by Aoun, who was appointed acting prime minister by former President Amin Gemayel when Lebanon’s Parliament failed to elect a new leader in 1988.
Aoun opposed the Taif accord because it did not stipulate an immediate withdrawal of the more than 30,000 Syrian troops and other foreign forces now occupying parts of Lebanon. During the six months before the peace pact, the Lebanese army had been engaged in the fiercest fighting of the 15-year civil war in an attempt to force Syria to withdraw. Aoun argued that Lebanese sovereignty had to be restored before a peace pact, free of outside influence, could be considered legitimate.
To preempt an election, Aoun dissolved Parliament on the eve of the vote and declared that any action it took would be unconstitutional. But Parliament met anyway in Syrian-controlled northern Lebanon and elected Mouawad, whom Aoun called “a Syrian puppet.”
The peace process and Mouawad’s election led to a major split within the Maronite Christian community. But Aoun’s ability to retain support within the army and his hold on the presidential palace forced the new government to meet in Syrian-controlled areas outside government centers in Christian-dominated East Beirut.
“The climate generated over the past few days against the Taif accord provides cover for whoever wanted to do it,” Maksoud said. “It is premature to point fingers at this moment because what is absolutely required is an atmosphere conducive to electing a new president who can in turn begin the judicial process of finding out who did it.”
Hopes that the new government would be able to replace Aoun were symbolized last week when U.S. Ambassador John McCarthy returned briefly to Lebanon to present his credentials to Mouawad in a show of support.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was closed Sept. 22 after supporters of Aoun besieged the diplomatic mission to demand American recognition of the general’s government.
Assassination has been a recurrent theme in Lebanese politics even before the country descended into civil war in 1975. In 1951, Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Riyad Solh, after helping suppress a revolt by Syrian-allied socialists, was assassinated on a visit to Jordan. In 1976, U.S. Ambassador Francis E. Meloy Jr., a senior aide and their bodyguard-driver were kidnaped and shot to death. Palestinian extremists were suspected, and the Palestine Liberation Organization reported arresting eight Palestinians and Lebanese who confessed to the killings, but nothing was heard of their fate. In 1982, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Israeli-backed commander of the Christians’ main militia, was assassinated in an East Beirut bombing a week before he was to be sworn in. Shortly thereafter, Christian militiamen massacred hundreds of Palestinians in two Beirut refugee camps.