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The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on Feb. 14 has raised fears of a return to civil war in a troubled country and adds yet another wrinkle to the already complex equation in the Middle East. It is unclear who was responsible for the murder, but fingers are pointing at Syria. The government in Damascus denies any responsibility.

The killing underscores the fragility of peace in Lebanon and highlights Syria’s critical role in maintaining stability there and throughout the region.

Mr. Hariri was a billionaire businessman who served as Lebanon’s prime minister from 1992, with only a brief two-year period out of government. A devout Sunni Muslim who was nonetheless uneasy about the inroads religion made in Lebanese politics, Mr. Hariri was credited with overseeing the rebuilding of Beirut after a vicious 16-year civil war and with restoring stability to Lebanon. He stepped down as prime minister in October after breaking with Damascus over plans to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian politician who had thwarted many of Mr. Hariri’s economic reforms.

Although Mr. Hariri became more outspoken against Syria’s role in Lebanon after his resignation, his sympathies had been shifting for some time. He was accused of backing a United Nations resolution passed last September that called for the withdrawal of Syria’s 14,000 troops from Lebanon and an end to outside interference in the country’s politics. The resolution also demanded the dismantling of armed guerrilla organizations operating in Lebanon, presumably with Syrian approval. Those positions earned him many enemies, and last week one of them planted a car bomb loaded with over 150 kg of explosives. It claimed Mr. Hariri’s life as well as 13 others.

The assassination has been denounced by governments from Washington to Damascus. The U.N. Security Council called on Secretary General Kofi Annan to report “urgently on the circumstances, causes and consequences of this terrorist act,” but the Beirut government said it needed no help in its investigation of the murder.

The list of suspects is long. Syria tops the list, given Mr. Hariri’s growing antipathy toward Damascus and the fact that it would be difficult for any group to smuggle such a large amount of explosives into Lebanon, anticipate Mr. Hariri’s travels and organize the attack without support from the Syrian intelligence services, according to reports.

Syria has been suspected in a number of high-profile assassinations in Lebanon, including that of Kamal Jumblatt, the Druze leader, in 1977, and of Bashir Gemayel, the president-elect who was allied with Israel, Syria’s bitter enemy, in 1982. Damascus is also thought to have been behind the attempted killing last year of Mr. Marwan Hamade, an ally of Mr. Hariri. If Damascus was not directly involved, militant groups that operate in Lebanon and enjoy Syrian support could have acted as surrogates, as might have Syrian sympathizers within the Lebanese intelligence and security services, reports said.

There is speculation that Syrian President Bashar Assad might not have complete control over his own intelligence services and that they undertook the operation on their own. And, in a Byzantine twist worthy of Mideast politics, some speculate that Israel was behind the killing to focus attention on Syria’s role in Lebanon and increase international pressure on Damascus to withdraw and disarm the militants.

The timing of the killing could not be worse for Syria. U.S. President George W. Bush has increasingly voiced frustration with the government in Damascus. He has accused it of supporting the insurgency in Iraq and of being unwilling to shut down anti-Israeli militants operating in Lebanon and Syria. Mr. Bush has said he will use his forthcoming trip to Europe to help build a trans-Atlantic consensus on how to deal with Damascus. The new rapprochement between the Israeli government and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas further threatens to marginalize Syria in regional peace discussions. Many Lebanese worry that any eventual deal between Palestine and Israel could leave hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees permanently in Lebanon, a potential source of instability in a country of just 4 million.

Syria’s influence over Lebanese politics affords it considerable power in the region. Yet Damascus’ interests are served as much by peace as by war. Domestic stability in Lebanon rests on a fragile balance of power among the country’s Sunni, Shiite and Christian communities. It is unclear who benefits most from fears of renewed violence in Lebanon, but Mr. Hariri’s death is a reminder of the tensions that lurk just beneath the surface of Lebanon’s politics, and how easily they are unleashed.

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