Mohamad Chatah – fierce critic of Assad – is murdered in Beirut

Robert Fisk — The Independent Dec 28, 2013

It was a bomb against the Saudis. Mohamad Chatah represented the most reasonable face of the Saudi-supported Sunni Muslim March 14 party in Lebanon: moderates are usually the first targets of Lebanese assassins.

The bombing in which five others, including the former Finance Minister’s bodyguards, were killed was carried out with the usual meticulous planning. In the very centre of Beirut, too, in the new city built by Saad Hariri’s father, Rafiq, and within half a mile of where Rafiq himself was assassinated almost nine years ago.

The killing was condemned by all the usual suspects: the Syrians, Hezbollah, the Russian embassy, the Iranian embassy and just about anybody who might have wanted to strike at the political party of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Last month, a Shia Muslim Hezbollah man was murdered outside his home. Before that the Iranian embassy was bombed, with 25 fatalities. Before that the Shia southern suburbs; before that two mosques in Tripoli (Chatah’s home town) – total dead, 45. Tit-for-tat isn’t the word for it.

Chatah had been a financial adviser to Hariri father and son – and must have known that he was, like many good guys in Lebanon, a target.

Several years ago, I met him in a West Beirut restaurant – in the same Ein Mreisse district in which he was to die – and he was trying to decide then if he should leave his post at the International Monetary Fund in the US for the cantankerous, dangerous, addictive world of Lebanese politics. Chatah came across as an eminently moderate man who believed in dialogue rather than military force, even when it came to disarming the Shia Hezbollah militia. He was, as his friend Marwan Iskander said to me yesterday, a man of integrity. And integrity is a rare quality in Lebanon.

Like most of Lebanon’s finest, he had been educated at the American University in Beirut but gained his doctorate in the States where he would later serve as Lebanon’s ambassador. Diplomat and politician, his death caused the March 14 movement to blame Hezbollah and the Iranians. Najib Mikati, the caretaker Prime Minister in a Lebanese government that doesn’t exist, claimed that Lebanon was now a “hostage to terrorists”.

Oddly, Arabs – from General Sisi in Egypt to Messrs Assad and Maliki in Syria and Iraq – now use the word “terrorist” more frequently than the Western mentors who taught them to use this meretricious, generic and frightful expression.

But in Lebanon, it is difficult to dispute the fact that violence has always imprisoned the Lebanese. Indeed, the killers of this tiny state make a point of eliminating all those who might cure Lebanon’s cancer peacefully, thus leaving the field open to the wild men of every party.

Surrounded by banks, boutique shops, ancient churches and mosques and the Prime Minister’s own offices – all restored by Hariri senior after the 1975-90 civil war – Chatah was a prestige target in a prestige part of new Beirut. The smoke of the explosion drifted across the façade of the old Turkish serail in which the caretaker cabinet – the Prime Minister-designate has not been able to form a government for eight months – regularly meets. In Lebanon, democracy often comes shrouded in smoke and fire.

Chatah opposed the rule of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Hezbollah’s armed role in Lebanon. Scarcely an hour before his death, he had tweeted a warning that Hezbollah was “pressing hard” to be granted the same security and foreign-policy powers once enjoyed by Syria. He had several times written that “a united and peaceful Syria ruled by Assad is simply not possible”.

Yet it would be naive to think that these views – freely expressed by many in the Lebanese opposition, some more prominent than Chatah – provoked his murder. In reality, he was just another face of the Sunni-Shia cold war which has burst through the crust of Muslim society over the past 30 years, increasing in ferocity as the old US-Soviet Cold War faded into history.

It is easy to forget that until the Iranian revolution – which brought the power of Shia Islam into perspective – Saudi Arabia was virtually the only focus of Muslim attention. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina ruled the Islamic world; once the Iranian clerics of Tehran and Qom claimed the latest Muslim revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia was challenged.

Thus in Iraq and Syria as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran itself, the Sunni-Shia conflict – so long deep-frozen by the East-West Cold War and scarcely spoken of in the Middle East for fear of its repercussions – has boiled over into a terrifying and real war. In so far as Syria’s sectarian battle has infected Lebanon, poor Chatah was a victim of this same conflict, slotted neatly and fatally into the Saudi-Iran struggle made manifest in one of the region’s smallest countries.


Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there

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