From Hariri to Soleimeni, a Mideast cy­cle of vi­o­lence and in­jus­tice


In 2005, a car bomb in Beirut killed Le­banon’s for­mer prime min­is­ter. In 2020, a U.S. drone strike killed a top Ira­nian gen­eral in Bagh­dad. What hap­pened in be­tween those two ex­plo­sions is a story of Ira­nian and Syr­ian tri­umph, Western fail­ure and Le­banese suf­fer­ing, writes se­nior in­ter­na­tional correspond­ent Mark MacKin­non

It was Valen­tine’s Day, 15 years ago. My wife and I were booked for din­ner at an Ital­ian restau­rant on the main floor of the famed Phoeni­cia Ho­tel in Beirut. It was going to be a posh night out, in tune with the rapidly West­ern­iz­ing Le­banese cap­i­tal that we were liv­ing and study­ing Ara­bic in.

By mid-af­ter­noon, the restau­rant was gone, the ho­tel lobby shat­tered by a mas­sive bomb that de­stroyed a pass­ing con­voy of cars, killing Le­banon’s for­mer prime min­is­ter Rafik Hariri, along with 21 oth­ers. The ex­plo­sion left a crater 10 me­tres wide.

For Carolynne and me, it was our wel­come-tothe-Mid­dle-East mo­ment. The ex­plo­sion shook the windows of our rented apart­ment more than two kilo­me­tres away, caus­ing a mad scram­ble to get away from any­thing made of glass, in case the first ex­plo­sion was fol­lowed by a sec­ond.

The follow-up blast came not then – though Le­banon would see plenty of vi­o­lence in the af­ter­math of Mr. Hariri’s killing – but 15 years later, when an­other ex­plo­sion struck an­other con­voy, this time in the Iraqi cap­i­tal of Bagh­dad, when an Amer­i­can drone fired a mis­sile at a car car­ry­ing top Ira­nian gen­eral Qassem Soleimani.

What we couldn’t see on that Valen­tine’s Day, as newly ar­rived cor­re­spon­dents in the re­gion, was the long war that had been launched in 2005. In­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tors later con­cluded that Mr. Hariri, the top Sunni Muslim politi­cian in Le­banon and a friend to gov­ern­ments in Wash­ing­ton and Paris, was slain by op­er­a­tives of Hezbol­lah, a para­mil­i­tary arm of the Ira­nian state.

As­sas­si­na­tions, we would learn, were the curse words in the lan­guage that hos­tile en­ti­ties use to speak to each other across the Mid­dle East. With a sin­gle, vi­o­lent act, a gov­ern­ment or group that feels it’s los­ing ground can elim­i­nate a key player on the other side, and spread fear among the vic­tim’s al­lies that the same could hap­pen to them if they don’t change their be­hav­iour.

By 2005, Iran was al­ready busy in Iraq, mov­ing to es­tab­lish it­self as king­maker amid the chaos that fol­lowed the 2003 U.S. in­va­sion and the elim­i­na­tion of Iraq’s dic­ta­tor, Sad­dam Hus­sein, an­other top Sunni fig­ure. Now Iran was mak­ing its move on Le­banon,

pur­su­ing its long-stand­ing goal of creat­ing a “Shia Cres­cent” – an arc of in­flu­ence and, more im­por­tantly, a sup­ply line – stretch­ing from Tehran, via friendly regimes in Bagh­dad and Da­m­as­cus, to the Mediter­ranean Sea port of Beirut.

At first, the killing of Mr. Hariri looked like it had back­fired on Hezbol­lah and its pa­trons. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Le­banese took to the streets in the weeks that fol­lowed. It was, at the time, an un­prece­dented upris­ing in the Arab world, one that forced Iran’s ally Syria to with­draw its army from Le­banon af­ter a 29-year oc­cu­pa­tion.

But in the tu­mul­tuous years that fol­lowed, Hezbol­lah and Iran grad­u­ally achieved their aims.

Le­banon is in­creas­ingly seen as an Ira­nian client state, with a gov­ern­ment able to gov­ern only as Hezbol­lah al­lows it. The land link from Tehran to Beirut is com­plete – af­ter Iran and Hezbol­lah in­ter­vened on the side of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad in that coun­try’s bloody civil war – giv­ing Iran a cru­cial eco­nomic life­line around re­newed U.S. sanc­tions.

Gen. Soleimani, as com­man­der of the Quds

Force, the in­ter­na­tional arm of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards, over­saw both Iran’s sup­port for Hezbol­lah and the in­ter­ven­tion in Syria’s con­flict. In­side Iran – and among grudg­ing ri­vals around the re­gion – he was given much of the credit for those vic­to­ries.

Boxed out of the in­ter­na­tional econ­omy, and with lit­tle to lose, Iran had shown it­self will­ing to break any rules nec­es­sary to achieve its aims.

By killing Gen. Soleimani and nine oth­ers (in­clud­ing the leader of an Ira­nian-backed Iraqi mili­tia) on Jan. 3, U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ac­knowl­edged that the United States and its al­lies stood where Iran and Syria did in 2005. So much ground had been lost that only the most dra­matic ac­tions, short of war, seemed suf­fi­cient. Like the regime in Tehran, Mr. Trump has also made it clear that he doesn’t care about the rules, only the re­sults.

Mr. Trump has been crit­i­cized at home and abroad for reck­lessly or­der­ing the drone strike. In the fallout, Iran lobbed mis­siles at Amer­i­can bases in neigh­bour­ing Iraq, and 176 civil­ians (86 of them Cana­dian cit­i­zens or res­i­dents) were killed when a pas­sen­ger plane was shot out of the sky by Ira­nian air de­fences brac­ing for a U.S. coun­ter­at­tack.

In an echo of what hap­pened in Le­banon in 2005, Iraq’s par­lia­ment, dom­i­nated by al­lies of Iran, passed a res­o­lu­tion ask­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary to leave the coun­try.

Amid a push to evict the U.S. from the en­tire re­gion, Iran’s al­lies say there’s more ret­ri­bu­tion to come.

Wor­ries are high in Le­banon that this coun­try, al­ready mired in a deep eco­nomic cri­sis, will be caught in the cross­fire of this dan­ger­ous new mo­ment in an old fight. But there’s also a cer­tain re­spect for Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion to order the killing of Gen. Soleimani.

Na­bil Bou Mon­sef, the deputy ed­i­tor of Le­banon’s an-Na­har news­pa­per, said the re­gion has been on a “path of con­fronta­tion” ever since the as­sas­si­na­tion of Mr. Hariri, one that has seen his coun­try pulled off its for­mer pro-Western course and into a “Re­sis­tance Axis” led by Tehran.

It’s a con­fronta­tion that took the life of Mr. Bou Mon­sef’s for­mer boss, an-Na­har’s iconic ed­i­tor Gi­bran Tueni, who was killed by an­other Beirut car bomb, 10 months af­ter Mr. Hariri.



“If you look at where we are to­day, they have won. Hariri was tak­ing Le­banon to a to­tally dif­fer­ent place. He was tak­ing Le­banon to the big leagues, in­ter­na­tion­ally. By killing Hariri, [Iran and Syria] took Le­banon back to where it is now,” Mr. Bou Mon­sef said.

“Ev­ery­body has tried to re­strain Iran in dif­fer­ent ways, and ev­ery­body has failed. Europe failed. The Arab na­tions failed. It should have been some­thing the UN did, but they didn’t. So, this had to be done by some­body crazy like Trump.

Fly­ing into Beirut in 2020 means land­ing at Rafik Hariri In­ter­na­tional Air­port, named for the most fa­mous vic­tim of the Valen­tine’s Day bomb­ing of 15 years ago. But as you leave the air­port, the road to­ward the city is framed by bill­board af­ter bill­board of a smil­ing Qassem Soleimani.

The two men were con­nected by more than just the fash­ion in which they died. If Hezbol­lah fight­ers were re­spon­si­ble for Mr. Hariri’s as­sas­si­na­tion, that means the killing – widely seen as hav­ing been done at the re­quest of Mr. As­sad’s regime, which saw Mr. Hariri as an ob­sta­cle – was car­ried out with Tehran’s bless­ing. And such a high-pro­file act would al­most cer­tainly have re­quired ap­proval from Gen. Soleimeni him­self.

The order “had to have come from Soleimani. Hezbol­lah is a tool of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards. It’s part of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, by struc­ture and by training,” said Imad Salamey, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs at Le­banese Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Le­banese of all faiths took to the streets of Beirut in the wake of the killing, in what be­came known as the Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion, and a dig­i­tal sign was raised in the city’s Sunni-pop­u­lated Hamra district, de­mand­ing “The Truth” – over a photo of Mr. Hariri and a dig­i­tal counter of how many days had passed since the killing. The sign counted more than 5,000 days be­fore it was qui­etly taken down last year.

The truth has long been known, but no in­sti­tu­tion has proved ca­pa­ble of act­ing on it. Le­banon’s own ju­di­cial sys­tem al­most im­me­di­ately gave way to in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and even­tu­ally to the Spe­cial Tri­bunal for Le­banon, which is based in The Hague. More than a decade af­ter it was founded, the tri­bunal has in­dicted five sus­pects – all of them Hezbol­lah mem­bers – who will al­most cer­tainly never face the court.

(One of the ac­cused, Mustafa Badred­dine, was killed in 2016 while fight­ing in Syria’s civil war. An in-ab­sen­tia ver­dict on the charges against the other four was ex­pected some­time last year, but a spokes­woman for the tri­bunal told The Globe and Mail there was “no time frame at the mo­ment” for an­nounc­ing the court’s de­ci­sion. Hezbol­lah has al­ways de­nied in­volve­ment in Mr. Hariri’s mur­der.)

While jus­tice re­mains re­mote, the al­leged per­pe­tra­tors – Hezbol­lah and its pa­trons – con­tinue to tighten their hold on this coun­try.

Since the end of a 1975-1990 civil war, peace has been kept in Le­banon via a com­pli­cated power-shar­ing agree­ment that stip­u­lates the coun­try’s pres­i­dent must al­ways be a Ma­ronite Chris­tian, its prime min­is­ter a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of par­lia­ment a Shia Muslim. It’s a com­pro­mise that en­sured peace be­tween the sects, while also en­sur­ing that Le­banese would re­main re­liant on their con­fes­sional lead­ers for jobs and pro­mo­tions.

That pa­tron­age sys­tem also fuelled cor­rup­tion that stunted Le­banon’s tiny econ­omy, which has slid into a full-blown debt cri­sis over the past year. The coun­try’s cur­rency has lost a third of its value in re­cent months, and lo­cal banks have re­stricted with­drawals of U.S. dol­lars – the coun­try’s de facto sec­ond cur­rency – to US$400 a month.

The coun­try needs an urgent in­jec­tion of cash, but both the U.S. and Sunni Arab coun­tries such as Saudi Ara­bia that have tra­di­tion­ally sup­ported Le­banon are wary about bol­ster­ing a Hezbol­lah-backed gov­ern­ment. The World Bank warned in Novem­ber that half of Le­banon could soon be liv­ing in of­fi­cial poverty un­less the cri­sis some­how eases.

In Oc­to­ber, Mr. Hariri’s son Saad, who has served two stints as prime min­is­ter in the years since his fa­ther’s death, of­fered his res­ig­na­tion amid an­other round of street protests, which this time are call­ing for the ouster of the en­tire rul­ing class. But while he stepped aside, Hezbol­lah al­lies re­fused to quit their posts as pres­i­dent and speaker of par­lia­ment. Last month, Has­san Diab, an ob­scure for­mer univer­sity lec­turer, was el­e­vated to the PM’s post with Hezbol­lah’s sup­port. For the first time, Hezbol­lah – and through it, Iran – has its nom­i­nees in ev­ery important po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion.

“It’s not a Le­banese gov­ern­ment. They have their own agenda. They are a real shadow gov­ern­ment be­cause they are in the shadow of their mas­ters,” said Lina Ham­dan, a for­mer aide to Rafik Hariri who is one of the key or­ga­niz­ers of the protests aimed at re­plac­ing the Hezbol­lah-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment with a secular and tech­no­cratic cab­i­net. It feels like an im­pos­si­ble aim.

Ms. Ham­dan and I met in late Jan­uary on a street cor­ner near the ap­proach to the coun­try’s par­lia­ment, which was sur­rounded by ce­ment bar­ri­cades and ra­zor wire erected to keep the pro­test­ers at a dis­tance. As we spoke, sev­eral hun­dred young Le­banese chanted “Rev­o­lu­tion! Rev­o­lu­tion!” on the streets be­hind her. But the pro­test­ers were out­num­bered by the heav­ily armed sol­diers and po­lice brought into Beirut to en­sure the new cab­i­net could meet.

The coun­try’s real force didn’t need to show it­self. Even when Saad Hariri and his al­lies were in gov­ern­ment, their im­po­tence was re­peat­edly made plain. In 2006, Hezbol­lah dragged the coun­try into a 33-day war with Is­rael that left more than 1,000 people dead, and the south of the coun­try shat­tered. Ten­sions be­tween Hezbol­lah and Mr. Hariri’s lightly armed Fu­ture Move­ment boiled over in 2008 – when it took Hezbol­lah fight­ers less than 24 hours to demon­strate their dom­i­nance by tak­ing over the cen­tre of Beirut.

“They won,” said Asma An­draos, a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional who played a key role in the 2005 Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion, and who later worked as pub­lic-re­la­tions ad­viser to Saad Hariri. “They con­trol the port, the air­port, the army in­tel­li­gence, and now – for the first time in the history of Le­banon – they hold the pres­i­dency and the Speaker of par­lia­ment and the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice. We have noth­ing.”

Nei­ther Le­banon nor Syria has a fu­ture at the mo­ment. It’s be­ing de­stroyed.

What hap­pens next is any­one’s guess.

Some­times as­sas­si­na­tions achieve their de­sired ef­fect, vi­o­lently and ir­re­versibly chang­ing the course of history. Other times, the act has back­fired, leading to un­fore­seen con­se­quences.

The Baathist regime es­tab­lished by Mr. al-As­sad’s fa­ther, Hafez al-As­sad, was one of the most prac­ticed at us­ing as­sas­si­na­tion to achieve its for­eign-policy aims. The 1982 killing of Le­banon’s pres­i­dent-elect, Bachir Ge­mayel, put an end to the pos­si­bil­ity that Le­banon might make peace with neigh­bour­ing Is­rael, and pulled the coun­try firmly into Syria’s or­bit. For the next two decades, Syria used fear – spread through oc­ca­sional as­sas­si­na­tions of key fig­ures who op­posed it – to main­tain its hold over its smaller neigh­bour.

In 1995, a right-wing Is­raeli ex­trem­ist op­posed to the Oslo peace process killed Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. The slaying was con­demned around the world, but set in mo­tion a chain of events that pro­pelled Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, a right-wing na­tion­al­ist, to the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice. Last month, Mr. Ne­tanyahu stood beam­ing be­side Mr. Trump as the U.S. Pres­i­dent

un­veiled a vi­sion of an Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace deal that – un­like the Oslo ac­cords – would meet nearly all of the de­mands of Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal right.

Other as­sas­si­na­tions have boomerange­d on the per­pe­tra­tor. In 1992, Is­rael thought it had dealt Hezbol­lah a mor­tal blow by killing the group’s leader, Ab­bas al-Mu­sawi, when he­li­copters attacked his mo­tor­cade as it drove through south Le­banon. But the blow­back proved fierce.

A month later, 29 people were killed when a sui­cide bomber drove a truck into the Is­raeli em­bassy in Buenos Aires, an at­tack Hezbol­lah said was re­venge for the death of their leader. Hezbol­lah would also grow dra­mat­i­cally in size and power un­der Mr. al-Mu­sawi’s suc­ces­sor, Has­san Nas­ral­lah.

“The Is­raelis felt like the as­sas­si­na­tion was a mis­take, in hind­sight,” said Ni­cholas Blan­ford, a Beirut-based fel­low at the At­lantic Council.

In the af­ter­math, Is­rael stayed away from targeting se­nior Hezbol­lah fig­ures un­til 2008, when Imad Mugh­niyeh, Mr. Nas­ral­lah’s sec­ond-in­com­mand, was killed in a joint CIA-Mos­sad op­er­a­tion in Da­m­as­cus.

Mr. Mugh­niyeh was a fig­ure at the cen­tre of much of the may­hem that is still re­ver­ber­at­ing through the re­gion. He was the man Hezbol­lah tasked with get­ting re­venge for Mr. al-Mu­sawi’s mur­der, and he was on the Is­raeli hit list be­cause of his role in the Buenos Aires em­bassy at­tack.

More than a decade later, many be­lieve that it was Mr. Mugh­niyeh whom Gen. Soleimani trusted to over­see the killing of Mr. Hariri. Both the al­leged com­man­der of the op­er­a­tion, Mr. Badred­dine, and the op­er­a­tive ac­cused of per­son­ally over­see­ing the at­tack, Salim Ayyash, were brothers-in-law of Mr. Mugh­niyeh.

But killing Mr. Mugh­niyeh didn’t change the be­hav­iour of Hezbol­lah or its back­ers in Da­m­as­cus and Tehran. And Gen. Soleimani’s as­sas­si­na­tion has thus far only caused Iran to es­ca­late its re­gion-wide push to drive the United States out of the Mid­dle East.

“As­sas­si­na­tions have an im­me­di­ate ef­fect, but then they of­ten have a whole myr­iad of af­ter-ef­fects that don’t go the way the cul­prit wanted,” said Mr. Blan­ford at the At­lantic Council.

Nadim Ge­mayel was four months old when his fa­ther Bachir was as­sas­si­nated in 1982. In an in­ter­view at the of­fice of the right-wing Chris­tian party that his fa­ther founded, he said he felt a burst of op­ti­mism when he heard that Gen. Soleimani had been killed. As­sas­si­na­tions, Mr. Ge­mayel said, were “the lan­guage that Iran un­der­stands.”

But when Mr. Trump chose not to re­tal­i­ate for the sub­se­quent Ira­nian mis­sile at­tacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, Mr. Ge­mayel be­gan to worry that the as­sas­si­na­tion would re­bound against U.S. al­lies in the re­gion. “My first re­ac­tion was: Whoa, a new era is start­ing … some­one un­der­stood there is a takeover of the Mid­dle East by Iran, and they’re com­ing to free the Mid­dle East,” Mr. Ge­mayel said, sit­ting be­neath a gi­ant por­trait of his fa­ther. “But up to now, it ap­pears there is no such plan. If there is no plan to con­tinue what [the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion] started, the Ira­ni­ans will come even stronger and harder in all the Mid­dle East.”

If Iran’s push to shape the re­gion be­gan with the killing of Mr. Hariri, the main bat­tle is be­ing fought – and is on the verge of be­ing won by Tehran and its al­lies – in neigh­bour­ing Syria.

While Le­banon’s 2005 upris­ing failed to reach all its aims, its main achieve­ment – forc­ing Syria to with­draw its army from the coun­try – was at the time a stun­ning ex­am­ple of people power win­ning out over an Arab au­to­crat. Six years later, the Le­banese ex­am­ple was of­ten cited as in­spi­ra­tion for the Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tions that rip­pled across the re­gion, top­pling dic­ta­tors in Tu­nisia, Egypt and Libya.

In early 2011, the Arab Spring came to Syria, and within a year Mr. As­sad’s regime, which is dom­i­nated by fol­low­ers of an off­shoot of Shia Is­lam, looked on the verge of de­feat, hav­ing lost vast swaths of the coun­try’s ter­ri­tory to armed op­po­si­tion groups, most of them Sunni Muslim. In Beirut, there was op­ti­mism that the de­feat of Mr. As­sad – and the rise of some kind of democ­racy next door – would re­vive the faded Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion. If noth­ing else, the col­lapse of the As­sad regime would cut off the main route through which Iran sup­plied money and weapons to Hezbol­lah.

Re­al­iz­ing what was at stake, Hezbol­lah grad­u­ally deployed more and more fight­ers into Syria to bol­ster Mr. As­sad’s sag­ging forces. Iran sent Shia mili­ti­a­men from all over the Mid­dle East to join the fight.

Events in Syria would prove that a de­ci­sion not to act can be as fraught with im­pli­ca­tions as a rash move.

While Mr. Trump’s pre­de­ces­sor, Barack Obama, rhetor­i­cally sup­ported the Arab Spring up­ris­ings, he was averse to us­ing U.S. mil­i­tary power to sup­port them. Mr. Obama said that his “red line” would be if the As­sad regime re­sorted to us­ing banned chem­i­cal weapons.

Mr. As­sad’s forces were found to have first used sarin gas against their op­po­nents in the fall of 2013, and then re­peat­edly af­ter­wards when Mr. Obama didn’t de­liver on the threat­ened mil­i­tary ret­ri­bu­tion.

As the U.S. hes­i­tated, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin waded into the fray in 2015, de­ploy­ing his coun­try’s air force to Syria – an ally of Rus­sia’s since Soviet times – and de­ci­sively tip­ping the bat­tle in the favour of Mr. As­sad’s forces.

By 2018, the war for Syria was largely over, and Hezbol­lah was tri­umphantly bring­ing its fight­ers back to Le­banon. Once again, those that had killed Mr. Hariri were cel­e­brat­ing, and those who hoped to see change in the Mid­dle East were on the re­treat.

“We’d be in a very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion” if Mr. As­sad’s regime had been de­feated in Syria, said Mr. Bou Mon­sef, the an-Na­har ed­i­tor. “I’m not say­ing ev­ery­body would be [pro-Western], but there would have been a re­vival. We could have be­come in­de­pen­dent as a state. Nei­ther Le­banon nor Syria has a fu­ture at the mo­ment. It’s be­ing de­stroyed.”

The hopes of the Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion were un­done through re­lent­less, tar­geted vi­o­lence.

In June, 2005, just five weeks af­ter Syria was forced to with­draw its sol­diers from Le­banon, a Beirut car bomb killed jour­nal­ist Samir Kas­sir, a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to an-Na­har and a prom­i­nent critic of Syria and Hezbol­lah. Six months later, his for­mer ed­i­tor, Mr. Tueni, who had left the coun­try for safety rea­sons fol­low­ing Mr. Kas­sir’s as­sas­si­na­tion, was killed by an­other car bomb on the day he re­turned to Beirut. Eleven months af­ter that, In­dus­try Min­is­ter Pierre Ge­mayel, the nephew of Bachir Ge­mayel and cousin of Nadim, was shot dead by a group of gun­men.

In all, 23 people were killed – and sev­eral other prom­i­nent politi­cians and jour­nal­ists barely sur­vived – in a string of a dozen at­tacks that sowed fear into the soil of the Cedar upris­ing. Last fall, prose­cu­tors at the Spe­cial Tri­bunal for Le­banon said it had enough ev­i­dence to charge the same Hezbol­lah net­work in three of the at­tacks. The other cases re­mained un­solved.

To­day, sim­i­lar tac­tics are be­ing used to sap the en­ergy of the protests in Iraq. Like to­day’s antigov­ern­ment protests in Le­banon, the Iraqi demon­stra­tions be­gan last fall as a youth­ful and non­sec­tar­ian move­ment, fuelled by anger over eco­nomic stag­na­tion, cor­rup­tion and Iran’s in­flu­ence over the Iraqi gov­ern­ment. The pro­test­ers gained a ma­jor vic­tory in Novem­ber when Prime Min­is­ter Adil Ab­dul-Mahdi, an ally of Iran, was forced to re­sign. Tens of thou­sands of Iraqis have con­tin­ued to take to the streets fol­low­ing the ap­point­ment of a new gov­ern­ment headed by a less sec­tar­ian leader, Mo­hammed Taw­fiq Allawi. Their de­mand is a com­pletely new po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

As in Beirut 15 years ago, the ini­tially peace­ful protests have been un­der­cut by a cam­paign of tar­geted blood­shed. On Oct. 2, 2019, the day af­ter the first mass protests in Bagh­dad, gun­men en­tered the home of hus­band-and-wife ac­tivists Hus­sein Adel al-Madani, 25, and Sara Talib, 24, who was seven months preg­nant, and shot the cou­ple dead.

Vi­o­lence has es­ca­lated dra­mat­i­cally since then, and more than 500 people have been killed in the con­tin­u­ing un­rest, in­clud­ing at least six other tar­geted killings of ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists. Much of the vi­o­lence has been at­trib­uted to the Iran-backed Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces. (The mil­i­tary com­man­der of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhan­dis, was killed in the same Jan. 3 airstrike as Gen. Soleimani.)

Iraqi ac­tivists, many of whom are just as crit­i­cal of the United States as they are of Iran, be­moan that their grass­roots move­ment has been dragged into the mid­dle of the re­gion-wide proxy war.

But for Iran, which has also seen a wave of anti-regime demon­stra­tions at home, the strug­gles for Bagh­dad and Beirut are ex­is­ten­tial. The Iraqi and Le­banese pro­test­ers’ de­mands for a new po­lit­i­cal order are a threat to Tehran, which wields its in­flu­ence through the ex­ist­ing sec­tar­ian sys­tem. Iran sees a U.S. plot in the si­mul­ta­ne­ous protests across the re­gion.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “max­i­mum pres­sure” cam­paign, which be­gan in 2018 with the reim­po­si­tion of sanc­tions, has been called “eco­nomic war” by Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani. Blocked from sell­ing all but a frac­tion of its oil pro­duc­tion, the coun­try’s econ­omy shrank more than 7 per cent last year, and is ex­pected to con­tract again in 2020.

While Iran and the U.S. backed away from open con­flict in the tense first days of Jan­uary, Tehran and its al­lies re­main on war foot­ing. “Eject­ing Amer­i­can troops from the re­gion – that will be the long-term re­sponse,” said Amal Saad, a Le­banese po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst who stud­ies Hezbol­lah.

Ms. Saad said there was “pop­u­lar out­rage” among “re­sis­tance sup­port­ers” across the re­gion, a sit­u­a­tion she likened to 2005, when anger over the killing of Mr. Hariri among pro-Western Le­banese forced Syria to with­draw its sol­diers. “But the Amer­i­cans are re­fus­ing to leave. That’s the big difference.”

In other words, the fallout from Gen. Soleimani’s as­sas­si­na­tion is far from over. No one knows what Iran and its al­lies might do next, or how Mr. Trump will re­act to the next es­ca­la­tion. Mean­while, Le­banon and the re­gion re­main on ten­ter­hooks – know­ing from sad ex­pe­ri­ence that one ex­plo­sion is al­most al­ways fol­lowed by an­other.



Left: Mourn­ers visit the tomb of for­mer Le­banese prime min­is­ter Rafik Hariri ahead of par­lia­men­tary elections in May, 2005. Right: Jour­nal­ist Mark MacKin­non had a din­ner reser­va­tion at Beirut’s Phoeni­cia Ho­tel on Feb. 14, 2005, when Mr. Hariri was killed by an ex­plo­sion right in front of the ho­tel.

A me­mo­rial to Rafik Hariri stands at the site of the 2005 ex­plo­sion in Beirut that killed him. In­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tors later con­cluded that Mr. Hariri was slain by op­er­a­tives of Hezbol­lah.

Above: An anti-gov­ern­ment pro­tester is seen sur­rounded by smoke in Beirut on Jan. 21.

Left top: Asma An­draos played a ma­jor role in Le­banon’s Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion in 2005.

Above: Thou­sands gather to lis­ten to Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah give a speech about Gen­eral Qassem Soleimani’s death in Dahieh, a mostly Shia sub­urb in south­ern Beirut, on Jan. 5.

Left bot­tom: Amal Saad is a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst who stud­ies Hezbol­lah.

Left: A man holds a pho­to­graph of Gen. Soleimani while lis­ten­ing to Mr. Nas­ral­lah’s speech.

Above: In his of­fice, Nadim Ge­mayel sits un­der a por­trait of his late fa­ther, Bachir, the founder of a right-wing Chris­tian party who was as­sas­si­nated in 1982.

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