Leading article: Another crossroads for the Middle East

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Whoever killed Lebanon's industry minister, Pierre Gemayel, was clearly determined that he should not get away. Six shots were fired into his car at point-blank range; any chance of escape was zero. There can be no doubt that the assassination of a man who was not only a cabinet minister in his country's tottering government, but a leader of his country's Christian community was intended to cause maximum damage. The fear must be that it will open another bloodstained chapter in the unfinished tragedy of Lebanon.

For those many people hoping for some respite from the recent upsurge in turbulence, the timing of Mr Gemayel's killing could hardly have been worse. It is less than a week since six pro-Syrian ministers resigned from the government. Much of southern Beirut still lies in ruins. There has been no time to repair all the damage from the Israeli attacks of this summer. Now the death of this scion of a prominent Christian family announces a new round of sectarian strife. Saad Hariri, son of the former prime minister and leader of the anti-Syrian coalition in parliament, described the new situation graphically. "The Cedar revolution," he said, "is under attack." He blamed Lebanon's erstwhile masters in Syria.

A Syrian hand is easy enough to detect in the death of Pierre Gemayel. But precisely whose hand? The Syrian government swiftly condemned the killing, insisting that its interests lay in preserving "Lebanon's security, unity and civil peace". The suspicion must be that there are high-level divisions in Syria to match those in Lebanon. The depleted Lebanese government had just approved draft UN plans for a tribunal to try the suspects in the assassination of Mr Hariri. Those responsible for the murder of Mr Gemayel very probably share the same loyalties.

The killing of a key Lebanese politician bodes ill for Lebanon. But, inevitably in a region where so much is interconnected, it casts a pall much further afield. The whole of the Middle East stands at another crossroads. There were hopes before Mr Gemayel's death that the separate countries would choose the more peaceful path, having suffered the depredations of armed conflict all too recently.

Southern Lebanon, if not Gaza, was quiet. The internationally monitored peace was holding. Syria had just restored diplomatic relations with Iraq. A first meeting between the leaders of Syria, Iraq and Iran was in the planning. This, in turn, had kindled hopes of a possible regional approach to quelling the violence in Iraq, securing the country's borders and opening a new front in the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In the background was George Bush's swingeing defeat in the US mid-term elections, which held out the promise of new thinking on Iraq, a possible opening to Syria and Iran, and a more active role for Washington in the Middle East. Tony Blair had sent a special envoy to Syria. Israel seemed to be in a mood to talk. There was a revival of diplomacy, overt and covert, that hinted at the possibility of flexibility in positions that had been entrenched since forever. Such hopes might have been unrealistic. But change was in the air.

The only change in prospect now is of a different and darker order. In his first response, Mr Blair said the priority had to be to protect the Lebanese prime minister - as if open foreign backing was ever able to shore up an ailing regime for long. Whoever gave the order for Mr Gemayel's assassination understood Lebanon's fragility and set out to thwart an incipient new order in the region. We can only hope that these forces do not succeed in that nihilistic endeavour.