Friday, February 18, 2005

Lebanese opposition declares intifada against Syria

The Lebanese opposition has declared an "uprising for independence" and called for the pro-Syrian government to step down.

In response to the criminal and terrorist policy of the Lebanese and Syrian authorities, the Lebanese opposition declares the democratic and peaceful intifada [uprising] for independence," said leading opposition figure Samir Frangia. "We demand the departure of the illegitimate regime," Frangia said, reading a final statement at the home of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt after an opposition meeting in a Beirut hotel on Friday.

Jumblatt did not attend the meeting, four days after the assassination of former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, for "security reasons," aides said.

The meeting was attended by more than 40 of the parliament's 128 members, as well as dozens of political activists. The opposition called for "the formation of an interim government as a supreme national necessity to protect the Lebanese people and ensure the immediate and complete pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon ahead of free and honest legislative elections."

They also declared "the suspension of any political or legal debate in parliament before the truth is uncovered"."We call on parliament ... to hold a plenary session to discuss the series of assassinations which started with the attempt on Marwan Hamada, with the martyrdom of Rafiq al-Hariri and the targeting of former minister (Basil) Fleyhan" in the same blast that killed al-Hariri.

Hamada, an MP and deputy to Jumblatt, was unsuccessfully targeted in October. Jumblatt himself received a veiled death threat earlier this month from the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Baath party.

Lebanon's anti-Syria opposition has accused the government and Damascus of having a hand in the massive bomb blast that killed former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 16 other people in Beirut on Monday.

The assassination sent shockwaves through the nation.

Aljazeera's correspondent in Beirut said the meeting of the opposition groups was the fourth of its kind. Sources close to the talks said the meetings are an attempt to hammer out a plan to escalate the toppling of the Lebanese government.

Meanwhile: Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced the chief of military intelligence with his brother-in-law, a Syrian official said Friday. The move came four days after the assassination in Beirut of Lebanon's former prime minister.

The chief of military intelligence oversees all of Syria's domestic and foreign intelligence operations, including activities in Lebanon, where Syria has some 15,000 Syrian troops and many intelligence agents.

The outgoing chief, Gen. Hassan Khalil, 65, had passed retirement age and his retirement had been postponed several times, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The new chief is the former deputy head of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, 55, the president's brother-in-law. The official said the change was a "natural" succession within the military.

A presidential decree was expected later on the appointment.

Monday's bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri provoked an unprecedented level of criticism against Syria's presence in Lebanon. Senior Lebanese opposition figures accused Syria of responsibility a charge that Syria flatly rejected. Thousands marched in Hariri's funeral on Wednesday behind banners that said: "Syria Out."

The United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus, giving the assassination as the immediate cause, and the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution reminding Syria it was obliged to implement a previous council resolution that called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon.

On Thursday, President Bush said he will work with his European allies to pressure Syria to pull out from Lebanon, saying Syria "is out of step" with progress being made in the Middle East.

Assad's move indicates the young president is consolidating his hold on the security services. Shawkat is close to Assad and recently emerged as a top presidential adviser on security matters. He is married to Assad's sister, Bushra.

Earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz questioned whether Assad was fully in control of Syria, four years after he assumed power after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad.