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Lebanon-Syria Relations 'Contentious' Four Years After Hariri Assassination

Lebanese commemorate the fourth anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri over the weekend. He was killed in a bomb explosion in Beirut on February 14, 2005, and many blame the attack on neighboring Syria. Relations with Damascus are still a contentious issue four years later.

It was the moment that brought change to Lebanon's relations with Syria.

Rafik Hariri was traveling near Beirut's seafront when a massive truck bomb was set off as his convoy passed, killing him and 22 others.

Mr. Hariri was the self-made business tycoon who dominated Lebanese politics from the early 1990s and served twice as prime minister. He is widely credited with helping rebuild Beirut after a 15-year civil war. Many say his falling out with Syria over its presence in Lebanon may have led to his death.

His assassination shocked Lebanon and the international community and rallied hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze minority, says the assassination did change things.

"Unfortunately it was the blood of Hariri that led the Syrians to leave Lebanon, officially," he said.

Syria pulled its 14,000 troops out of Lebanon within a few months after the assassination, ending a 29-year deployment. It did so amid public pressure from inside Lebanon and a U.N. resolution demanding their withdrawal.

Karim Makdisi, who teaches international relations at the American University of Beirut, says the Syrian withdrawal and the new formal diplomatic ties between Beirut and Damascus mark a new era.

"It is excellent, it is what both countries need at this point after many years of instability," he said. "It is something that both peoples need, so not just the governments but the people need some measure of stability and normalcy in the coming years."

But not everyone was pleased. Following the Hariri assassination, Lebanon's Shia militant group, Hezbollah, rallied its supporters and took to the streets in pro-Syrian demonstrations.

Hezbollah member of parliament, Nawar Sahili, says the Syrian relationship is very important. But, he insists it does not dictate Lebanon's internal affairs.

"I'm proud of this relation, but this relation stops when we begin discussing internal Lebanese problems," said Sahili.

But, political science professor Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut disagrees. He says while the Syrian troops may have left, Syria still interferes in Lebanon's affairs.

"The Syrian influence has not waned since the departure of the Syrian army from Lebanon," said Khashan.

"They continue to have a veto power. Nothing can happen in Lebanon unless the Syrians approve of it. They have their people; they have their supporters; their intelligence agencies are still completely intact; they know a whole lot more about the security situation in Lebanon than the Lebanese internal security forces," he added.

Syrian troops helped end the civil war in 1990 and they kept the peace. But many Lebanese say they overstayed their welcome and what they want now is for the Syrians to stop meddling. Some think the fact that Syria is opening an embassy in Beirut may signal a new era of more equal and normal ties.

Syria denies any involvement in Rafik Hariri's killing, but many here do not believe that, and a U.N. investigation implicated senior Syrian officials. A special U.N. tribunal to try Mr. Hariri's suspected killers is scheduled to begin work next month in The Hague.