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By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – The fountains still flow outside the Starco Center in downtown Beirut as charred car parts and tiny glass fragments lay scattered around the ground. At around 10 am this morning, Lebanon experienced another fatal car bomb, this time taking the life of Mohammad Chattah, Lebanon’s former Minister of Finance and a trusted adviser of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
Five others perished and an additional 70 people were wounded in a blast that detonated an estimated 50-60 kg of explosives, according to investigators. Lebanon has been the site of a number of car bombs in the second half of 2013, bringing back chilling memories of the mid 2000s when many political opposition figures were targeted with such a method.
Chatah, 62, was on his way to a March 14 coalition meeting at al-Hariri’s residence in downtown Beirut when the bomb went off. Shortly after the blast, various security forces arrived at the scene and engaged in a small physical exchange in a showing display of Lebanon’s political division.
Lebanon is politically divided between the pro-West-Saudi Arabia March 14 party and the Iran-Syria-leaning March 8. Lebanon’s geography places it in a fragile security and political situation with a war raging next door in Syria that has shown no sign of ceasing.
An influential member of the pro-West March 14 coalition, Chatah was one of the most moderate politicians from Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli where radical Islamist movements have support. He was also a former employee of the IMF and the Lebanese Ambassador to the United States. At a conference in Amman a few weeks ago, this Atlantic Post correspondent met with Chatah and heard him speak proudly of his sons’ accomplishments.
For his part, al-Hariri has been out of the country since 2011, citing security threats, since political opponents toppled his government March 8. Al-Hariri indirectly accused Shi’a political movement and Iranian ally Hezbollah of the blast, saying, “The ones who run away from international justice and refuse to appear before the international tribunal” are the responsible party.
Al-Hariri and his allies claim that many of the deaths of political figures follow a consistent pattern of targeting figures opposed to Hezbollah’s political dominance and Syria’s influence in Lebanon. Chatah is also the second member of al-Hariri’s close circle to have been assassinated after the Internal Security Forces Intelligence branch Chief Wissam al-Hassan was killed in a similar attack in October 2012.
Hezbollah, however, forcefully denounced the assassination, claiming it rewarded “the enemies of Lebanon.”
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the assassination “targeted a political and moderate figure who believed in dialogue, the language of reason and logic and the right to different opinions.”
Many Lebanese heard the forceful explosion from around the city. “The glass in my shop luckily didn’t break but it shook,” said Hassan Chartouni, who owns a cell-phone shop in Qantari, about a five-minute walk from the blast. Employees of companies surrounding the blast site were cleaning shattered glass and other wreckage from their offices past late afternoon. A two-part photo of a group of four friends taking a “selfie” at the scene of the blast went viral in Lebanon, with the first photo snapped shortly before the blast and the second right after. Bloggers reported that none of the four had been killed but one of the friends was badly wounded by the explosion.
Chatah’s assassination comes just days before the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon begins trying four Hezbollah members accused of involvement in the assassination of al-Hariri’s father and former Prime Minister, Rafik al-Hariri.
Still, Chatah’s assassination is a surprise considering he was a moderate figure who often stood outside the limelight of others. Ramez Dagher, a Lebanese blogger who blogs under the pseudonym Moulahazat, wrote that the attack was a “clear message: No one is safe, no place is safe.”
Justin Salhani is The Atlantic Post’s Lebanon Correspondent, based in Beirut. @JustinSalhani