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(photo credit: AP)
A powerful car bombing killed the likely next head of the army in the first such assassination targeting Lebanon's military, seen by many Lebanese as the only institution keeping the divided nation from breaking apart.
Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj and his driver were killed minutes after he left his home on the way to work Wednesday. At 7:10 a.m. (0510 GMT), a parked car packed with 35 kilograms of TNT exploded, triggered by remote control, as Hajj's SUV passed by.
The bombing left a crater 2 meters wide and 1 meter deep on a busy street with school buses and morning commuters in Baabda, a mainly Christian suburb of Beirut where the presidential palace is located and where army presence is heavy.
With no claim of responsibility, there was widespread speculation over the motive for the attack, which comes as feuding politicians are struggling to elect a president.
Some anti-Syrian politicians accused Damascus, saying it was trying to torpedo efforts to elect a president. Others said the attack could be a warning to the military to stay out of politics or vengeance by Islamic militants for an army offensive that Hajj led against them last summer.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, speaking in Damascus, condemned "this criminal act and every measure that jeopardizes Lebanon's security and stability."
The US praised Syria for its response - a sign of somewhat warmer ties between the two rivals after Syria attended last month's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Moallem's remarks were "positive." The Bush administration declined to speculate who was to blame, pending a review of the assassination.
"In the past, there have been incidents where we would blame Syria, but I am not prepared to do that until that review is complete," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
Since 2005, a string of bombings and attacks have killed eight prominent anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon. The plotters have never been identified, but anti-Syrian politicians who back Lebanon's government have accused Damascus of involvement, a claim Syria has denied.
Lebanon's military has remained on good terms with the Syrians and has largely acted with impartiality in Lebanon's bitter political power struggle between allies and opponents of Damascus, winning it the respect of both camps.
The failure to elect a president since September has embroiled Lebanon in its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the killing of el-Hajj "in the strongest terms" as well as its "strong condemnation of this attempt to destabilize Lebanese institutions, in this particular case the Lebanese Armed Forces." It reiterated its condemnation of all targeted assassinations in Lebanon.
The council underlined "that no attempt to destabilize Lebanon should prevent the holding, without delay, of a free and fair presidential election in conformity with Lebanese constitutional rules, without any foreign interference or influence, and with full respect for democratic institutions."
The president's office has been vacant since Nov. 23, when Emile Lahoud's term ended. Hajj's boss, army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman, has emerged as a possible consensus candidate for the presidency. But political wrangling has held up his election, which would require a constitutional amendment because currently a sitting army commander is barred from the post.
Hajj, a Maronite Christian, was a leading candidate to replace Suleiman as head of the military if Suleiman became president.
Suleiman was believed to have the tacit consent of Syria for the presidency, though Damascus has not publicly taken a stance.
The military's role in Lebanon is particularly important because of fears that the power vacuum could lead to violence.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said the aim of Wednesday's attack was to undermine the army. "I am confident their (attackers') goals will fail and the army's morale will remain high," he told a meeting of security chiefs.
The military refrained from placing blame for Hajj's death, saying only that a "criminal hand" was behind the attack.
Suleiman called on all sides "not to use the blood of the martyr in politics or in an attempt to cast doubt about the military's abilities."
"No matter what terrorism does, it will not make the army or the Lebanese people submit," he said in a statement.
Wednesday's bombing prompted calls for Lebanese to rally together.
Anti-Syrian leader Walid Jumblatt called for dialogue with the opposition, which is led by the Shiite Muslim Hizbullah, a group allied with Syria and Iran. "The nation and the army come first," Jumblatt said on television, calling for an "honorable" political solution acceptable to both feuding camps.
But some in the anti-Syrian coalition that backs Saniora's government pointed the finger at Damascus.
Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, speaking to AP Television News, accused the "Syrian-Iranian axis" of hitting the military, "the only body in Lebanon which can balance the power of Hizbullah and other militias in the country."
Hizbullah denounced the assassination, calling it "a great national loss." Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a former army chief who is allied with Hizbullah, was visibly shaken, telling reporters he had supported Hajj to become the new army commander if Suleiman became president.
Suspicion also fell on other Islamic militants. Hajj led a three-month military campaign that crushed al-Qaida-inspired Sunni militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon over the summer. Islamic militants were believed linked to a car bombing that killed six Spanish troops in the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon in June.
A funeral for Hajj will be held Friday in the Christian heartland. He will be buried at his hometown in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border.
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