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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hariri Held Key Lebanon Role

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a moderate leader with a strong presence, someone the opposition could rally around heading into upcoming elections that have turned on the bitter fight over Syria's military presence. That role was perhaps his undoing.

Hariri was killed Monday by a bomb that shattered his heavily protected motorcade of armor-plated vehicles on a seafront Beirut street. Twelve other people were also killed, including seven bodyguards. More than 120 people were injured.

For now, it is unclear whether parliamentary elections that had been expected in April and May will be delayed.

Hariri had served as prime minister for 10 of the last 14 years. But he died as part of the opposition -- pushed out in October in a power struggle with pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, and, some say, denied the Syrian backing that would have guaranteed his stay in office.

Syria has effectively controlled Lebanon since it moved troops into the country in 1976, at the outset of the civil war. In 1981, Syria forced the Beirut government to sign a treaty declaring that Syria would play the dominant role in its foreign policy.

Hariri's death strips the opposition of the politician with the most momentum, money and prominence -- the person most likely to translate election victories into policy changes that could lead to a Syrian troop withdrawal. His death also robs Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community, the group allotted the premiership in Lebanon's division of power, of its strongest leader.

Never had the opposition been in such a strong position heading into elections, in part because of international pressure on Syria not to intervene. Syria had a major hand in the three parliamentary elections since 1990.

Hariri headed the second-biggest bloc in Parliament. His vast fortune -- amassed from construction work in Saudi Arabia -- his philanthropic bent, his media presence and his wide international contacts were all campaign assets.

Supporters of Syria had clearly felt his heat. They had accused Hariri of being the driving force behind a September UN resolution sponsored by the United States and France demanding that the Syrian army leave Lebanon. Cabinet Minister Talal Arsalan had described him as a "venomous snake."

Lebanese opposition leaders, in a symbolic meeting at Hariri's Beirut mansion, said bluntly that they held Lebanese and Syrian governments "responsible," and demanded that the Syrian army leave.

The George W. Bush administration, condemning the assassination of the former prime minister, suggested Monday that Syria was to blame and moved to get a new condemnation of Syria's domination of Lebanon at the United Nations Security Council.

U.S. officials also said the administration was studying the possibility of tougher sanctions on Syria, effectively tightening penalties imposed in May, when Washington said the Syrian government had failed to act against militant groups in Israel and against a supply line from Syria to the insurgents in Iraq.

"We condemn this brutal attack in the strongest possible terms," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, adding that the killing was "a terrible reminder that the Lebanese people must be able to pursue their aspirations and determine their own political future, free from violence and intimidation and free from Syrian occupation."

"We're going to turn up the heat on Syria, that's for sure," said a senior U.S. State Department official.

At the United Nations, the Security Council called for a meeting Tuesday to discuss the bombing.

(AP, NYT)