BEIRUT, Lebanon - A remote-controlled car bomb ripped through a busy street overlooking Beirut yesterday, killing a top general and his bodyguard and heightening the sense of instability in a country that has gone without a president for nearly three weeks.
Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj was killed minutes after he left home on the way to work. At 7:10 a.m., a parked car packed with 77 pounds of TNT exploded, triggered by remote control, as Hajj's SUV passed by.
The bombing left a crater 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep on a street busy with school buses and morning commuters in Baabda, a mainly Christian suburb of Beirut where the presidential palace is located and army presence is heavy.
The assassination was the first to target an army commander since Lebanon's political crisis began last year. It marked yet another line transgressed in a confrontation that has paralyzed the cabinet, parliament and presidency.
To many, the army stands as the last viable national institution. The attack sent a chill through a country growing ever more discouraged with an enduring confrontation between a U.S.-backed government and an opposition led by the Islamic group Hezbollah, which draws support from Syria and Iran.
"The army is our last hope," Nazih Rafael said as he swept glass from his storefront near the site of yesterday's attack. "If they can strike a blow at the army, then we are a people without hope."
Asked about the culprit, Rafael shrugged, a gesture conveying the anonymity of those behind the assassinations that have become part of the country's political calculus. Government supporters blamed Syria, as they have in other bombings that targeted eight prominent opponents of Damascus in the last two years. Syria denied any role and suggested Israel or its allies had a hand in the attack.
Hajj's boss, the army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, has emerged as a possible consensus candidate for the presidency. Hajj, a Maronite Christian, was a leading candidate to replace Suleiman as head of the military if Suleiman became president.
While government opponents and supporters have agreed in principle on Suleiman's succeeding former President Emile Lahoud, who stepped down Nov. 23, negotiations have stalled over a comprehensive deal to resolve the crisis, the country's worst since the 1975-90 civil war.
The eventual settlement will be perceived in Lebanon and abroad as a victory for one side or the other, with implications for the influence here of the United States, Iran and Syria. Also affected will be the role of Hezbollah, the relative power of Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities, and the country's posture toward Israel.
In contrast to past assassination victims, Hajj, 55, had no public political profile - a reflection, in part, of the army's largely successful attempt to stay neutral in the conflict. But the political orientation of the army remains a point of contention in the ongoing political confrontation, and historically its upper echelons have been viewed as friendly, even cooperative, with Hezbollah, particularly in the 1990s.
Hajj was perhaps best known as the director of operations in the army's costly battle with an armed Islamic group that dragged on nearly four months this summer in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
If Suleiman moves up, he would be the third commander of the army to assume the presidency since Lebanon's independence in 1943.