Anti-Syrian politician latest to die as murder takes hold in Lebanon

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It was Georges Hawi. Former head of the Communist Party, mediator between Christians and Muslims, friend of the Palestinians during the civil war and - of course - bitter critic of Syria. "Help me, help me," he had cried as he was dragged by his driver and a neighbour from his bombed car. Covered in blood, he died in their arms. A "soft" target, a man who thought he had no need of protection. Just like his journalist friend and fellow critic of Syria, Samir Kassir, who was assassinated in his car - the explosives were set in an identical manner - earlier this month.

Hawi's right shoe lay among the wreckage on the street in the Wata Mouseitbeh area of Beirut, along with pieces of the passenger door. His Mercedes had been passing a petrol station near his home when someone - with line of sight, presumably, either in one of the high-rise apartments above or in the parking lot opposite - set off the bomb under the passenger seat and sent the car slithering 30 feet down the highway. The crowd were angry and the word "Syria" was on their lips. When I found Ghazi Aridi, Walid Jumblatt's friend, fellow Druze and former minister of information at the scene, his shock was palpable. "Come with me," he muttered angrily and led me away from the broken car.

"This," he hissed, "is the same project to assassinate all the leaders of the opposition, of the future of Lebanon. The big question is this: why are all the leaders of the opposition now targets?" And of course, within hours, Syria was insisting that it had nothing to do with Lebanon's latest assassination, and President Emile Lahoud - Syria's best friend in Lebanon - was denouncing the murder of this "national" figure as "another chapter of the conspiracy targeting Lebanon".

But important and devastating events are taking place in this country which are already reaching deep into the roots of political power. For while the assassins were at work, the UN's investigation team began questioning Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan, the head of President Lahoud's presidential guard brigade, about the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February. This was no ordinary chat.

The investigators, whose team includes US police officers and is led by Germany's senior prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, also searched Mr Hamdan's office and his home - a severe shock for the President since Mr Hamdan is one of his top security advisers and one who has been accused by the opposition of involvement in the government cover-up of Hariri's assassination.

The murder did not only target a much-admired nationalist famous for being among the first to call for resistance to Israel's army in 1982. It was also a blow to the country's political, economic and social stability. Lebanon, it is becoming clear, is a murder state where the killers are not intimidated by the UN's powerful investigators; where assassins work with impunity and - it seems - safe from security authorities. Hawi was Greek Orthodox who, like Samir Kassir, the last murder victim here, was a leftist and a philosopher though by no means a fanatical Communist. His killing came only a day after Saad Hariri announced that his opposition and anti- Syrian coalition had won a majority in parliament. So the Lebanese spring was followed, as usual, by a Lebanese grave.

Saad Hariri said his murder was intended to disrupt the effects of the election. Jumblatt said Lebanese intelligence agencies must be "completely purged".

Hawi's colleague in the Communist Party, Farouk Dahrouj, was blunter. "Yes, it's the Lebanese security system - the remnants - the tutelage," he said. "Tutelage" is Lebanon-speak for Syria's domination of the Lebanese government and its intelligence services.

So another innocent man, another opponent of Syria, a 65-year-old who was only on his way to meet friends at the Gondole coffee shop, was blasted to death. His body, his grey hair and face still visible but with bloody wounds, was gently placed in an ambulance, just as Kassir's had been. And we were left with the same old question: who's next?