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Robert Fisk on the Beirut Bombing, U.S.-Syrian Relations and the Iraqi Elections

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Longtime foreign correspondent Robert Fisk joins us from his home in Beirut. He is the author of “Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon.” He arrived at the scene of the assassination of former Prime Minister on Monday just moments after the explosion and describes what happened. [includes rush transcript]

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was buried today amid chaotic scenes at a mosque in Beirut. He was killed along with 14 others in a massive bomb blast on Monday. Over 150,000 mourners marched in a funeral procession to the Muhammed Amin mosque in one of Lebanon’s biggest and most diverse gatherings for decades.

Reuters reports the funeral turned into an outpouring of public wrath against Syria, which is blamed by opposition leaders for the killing. Some 15,000 Syrian troops are stationed in Lebanon.

Hariri’s family turned down government offers of a state funeral. They made clear government officials such as Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud, along with his prime minister and interior miniter, were not welcome to attend the funeral. Hariri resigned as prime minister last October after falling out with Syria over its role in extending the presidential term of Lahoud.

Meanwhile, the US has recalled its ambassador to Syria to protest the bombing. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters she was not blaming the attack on Syria but said its presence in Lebanon was destabilizing. She said the US was discussing a response to the bombing with the UN, and considering further diplomatic sanctions against Syria over a range of US complaints.

Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac will travel to Beirut Wednesday to attend the funeral. Several other foreign dignitaries are also expected, including US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, Arab League General Secretary Amr Moussa and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Yesterday, we spoke with journalist Robert Fisk in Lebanon. Fisk is the Chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent and has lived in Beirut for many years. He is the author of “Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon.” He arrived at the scene just moments after the explosion Monday and described what happened.

  • Robert Fisk

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday we reached Robert Fisk, journalist in Lebanon, Chief Middle East Correspondent for the London Independent, who has lived in Beirut for many years. He’s the author of Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. He arrived at the scene from his home just moments after the explosion on Monday and described what he saw.

ROBERT FISK: Well, I was sitting actually working at the desk where I’m sitting at the moment talking to you, and I had a call from my colleague in Baghdad, Patrick Cockburn, and we had been talking for about a minute, there was a extraordinary explosion. All the shutters of my house blew open, the windows at the back broke. And I looked out the window and I actually saw the blast wave — a kind of white wave going down the Corniche, the seafront in front of my house. Very odd for my colleague in Baghdad to hear a bomb in Beirut. The first thing I did was run out into the street, and look up into the sky, because I thought since the Israelis often overfly Beirut, and create pretty noisy sonic booms, this may have been them. And then I looked down the Corniche, and very close to me, four or five —hundred meters, very close to St. George Hotel -— which is still in ruins from the war, but under reconstruction — was a great swath, if you like to use your favorite American phrases, of brown and black smoke. And what happened was that I — I ran down the road towards the scene. It was obviously a car bomb. I mean, I have been 28 years here, I know a car bomb. And I arrived at the bottom of the road. Many people were running in the other direction, some of them had blood on their clothes and obviously in a state of considerable distress. And I turned the corner towards the — into carnage. There were cars burning, in all I counted 22 at the end of about a half hour there. Pieces of body parts in the road. I saw two, three people in all burning inside vehicles. There was a very big man lying on the pavement, whom I thought must have been a passer-by. I realized a few hours ago, actually, it was almost certainly Rafik Hariri, but someone came and put a checkered blanket over him and he was taken away. I can’t confirm it was, but having seen the photographs later, of the blanket, it probably was. The — it was very difficult to assess what was happening, because there was lots of brown smoke. There was the smell of explosives, and the smell of bodies burning, meat. At one point, several cars’ petrol tanks exploded and sprayed fire over the road. So I was running between the vehicles trying to avoid the flames. At one point, I found a car in which I thought it was a woman, but I’m told now it was a man who was burning alive — well, they were dead, but they had been burned alive. The top of their skull was missing. And just behind the vehicle, was a huge hole in the ground where a crater — a crater. I estimated at the time about 15-20 feet. Looking back, it was about 30 feet, and much later when the police arrived, I actually climbed into it with the Lebanese detectives, and we were looking at pieces of the car bomb, which was only about an inch long. You know, I mean, this was a huge explosion–350 kilos. It must have been at least. This wasn’t a suicide bomb, you couldn’t drive this car. But it was planted beside the empty derelict St. George Hotel. A bomb of such car that it blasted one of Hariri’s cars three floors up the annex, again empty, of the St. George Hotel. This is the old hotel from the 50’s and 60’s in which, you know, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor used to stay. I had no idea because the cars were so smashed that it was Hariri’s convoy. His armored convoy of vehicles which even has anti-boobytrapped bomb electronic equipment on the roof. The cars were on fire. They were exploding. I was trying to — you know, avoid getting killed in the aftermath of the bombing.

And then I saw a man I recognized, who was wounded. And I knew he was one — or he used to be one of Rafik Hariri’s bodyguards. And I said to him, are you okay? He said — he said — Ya-Allah, Allah, the big man has gone. And I sort of took it in, again, you have to understand I was trying to make sure that I didn’t get killed by exploding cars, but I sort of took it in that Hariri must have been there but at the same time, if he’s gone, it meant that he managed to get away, he was okay, you know, he had managed to escape from this terrible inferno. At one point, I hand a woman’s hand on the road. It was a woman’s glove with her hand inside it. And — my impression was that if it was Hariri, he was okay. But then I met another colleague of mine much later, who arrived from somewhere else in the city, obviously, he wasn’t as close as I was to the bombing, who said there’s a rumor that they’ve got Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, and he’s dead. From that moment, I went back to my apartment here where I’m sitting now, and I told my landlord downstairs who is a Druze Lebanese. I said, there’s a rumor it’s Hariri, they killed him. He said, Ya-Allah, I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this. I said I think you might have to. Much later, I went back down the road to look at the vehicles and realized that they were — they were armored Mercedes, they were obviously a convoy. And it took at least two hours before the government, in the shape ironically of the Ministry of Tourism of all people, confirmed that Hariri was dead, and I found it very hard to believe, because I knew Hariri pretty well. You know, I don’t think journalists should say they’re friends of prime ministers and so on, but he was a person that I knew pretty well. I mean, I had lunch with him, dinner with him, I had had coffee with him. I had been to see him, sometimes his secretary would ring me up and say, do you want to drop by the office and tell me what’s going on in Iraq, you know I wouldn’t tell him any more that he would learn from my articles if he read them, but he wanted to hear what was happening from someone other than government officials. And it was very hard when I realized in this inferno of fire and body parts to think that this extremely immensely wealthy, powerful man, you know, who had met Bush, Clinton, was listened to by Saudi kings and emirs, a man who was a very close personal friend of Jacques Chirac, could have suddenly been extinguished in this inferno of smoke and fire. There you go. That’s Lebanese politics. I guess it’s middle east life, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Robert Fisk, he traveled in a convoy of well-armed Mercedes, because he knew this was a possibility? Who did he fear?

ROBERT FISK: Oh, he feared everyone. He feared the Israelis, he feared the Syrians, he feared the Americans. He probably feared the Russians. When you’re a billionaire tycoon like Rafik Hariri was, you take these precautions. He did once drive me down the Corniche outside my house, actually, in the Range Rover, with just one car behind him and no protection at all, but those were earlier days. Not in these current, fraught, intense times. But he was a man who you see — he was basically a businessman. He made his billions — millions in Saudi Arabia. He has a Saudi passport as well. And he was also in his way a philanthropist. He liked being loved, which is both nice and dangerous for various reasons. He would give millions to set up a new hospital in southern Lebanon. He spent millions and millions sending Lebanese students to British universities. My own driver, Abad here, his son Assam was sent to Essex University in England on a scholarship which was paid for by Hariri. He was biased towards the Sunni Muslim community. He was a Sunni, otherwise he couldn’t have been the prime minister, because this is a sectarian system of society here that the president has to be a Christian. The Prime Minister is Sunni Muslim. The Speaker of Parliament, a Shia Muslim and so on and so forth, as I’m sure you know. But he was — I mean, he had clean hands up to a point. He was a very ruthless businessman, but he never had a militia. He didn’t have murders on his hands. The Speaker of Parliament here, Nabih Berri, the Shiite Amal leader still controls the militia. You know, the president controls the 70,000-strong army. Suleiman Franjieh’s relatives controlled a very brutal militia in northern Lebanon in the war, which ended in 1990, of course, 15 years, cost 150,000 lives. But Hariri didn’t have a militia. He had clean hands. And there was an odd way in which you — if you got to know him, I mean, you could — you could realize how ruthless he could be in business, and how you wouldn’t want to oppose him in business. I once wrote an article saying that Hariri was like the cat that ate the family canary and then smiled and commented to the family rather than saying that he didn’t do it, saying it really tasted rather good. And I — I assumed that Hariri would loathe this. He was probably intended to loathe it by me and about a week or two later, I found out that he had been faxing this article to not only his friends but political enemies. He felt it was pretty accurate, which it was, actually. He was a man who didn’t ever say sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, of the Independent newspaper. His — he was sitting at home when the explosion took place in Beirut, ran down the street, and saw the carnage.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Robert Fisk, who we reached late yesterday. Robert Fisk of The Independent newspaper, voted best foreign correspondent by editors and reporters in Britain year after year. He was startled by the explosion in Beirut, ran out of his home, and saw the carnage. He talked about the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

ROBERT FISK: Syria, you see, has a strategic reason for being here. In 1982, the Israelis invaded Lebanon and got up to beyond Jounieh. And had they struck east with their tanks, they could have cut Syria in half. And Syria wants to make sure there are going to be no more pro-Israeli governments or Israeli-sponsored governments in Beirut, who might allow such a devastating event to take place in Syria. So, there’s a kind of long term strategic reason why the Syrians are here. They’re not here because they want to throw snowballs on the mountain of Sanine, or they like Iraq or they are keen on Lebanese society. They’re here for strategic military reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, what about President Bush recalling the U.S. ambassador in Syria following the killing of the former Lebanese prime minister, and condemning the foreign occupation of Lebanon?

ROBERT FISK: Well, Bush is lining up Syria in his sites. You know, at this moment of all moments, America probably — the United States probably needs an ambassador in Syria. They still have got the embassy open. He hasn’t closed — he hasn’t broken off diplomatic relations. It’s all in Syria, because obviously, America is lining up Syria as the culprit, the person who — which killed Hariri. Many Lebanese would believe that, as I have said many times since this crime occurred. That might be a bit simplistic. I’m not saying that the Syrians were not involved. The Syrians know everything that goes on in Lebanon. Therefore, did they not know that this huge bombing was going to take place? Important question. But my experience with Lebanon is that when the leading figures like President Moawad back in the 1980s was assassinated, it’s not that someone stands up like, you know, the British king, the English king and says, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Thomas Becket, in that case. It’s that there comes an awareness that various groups of people, be they the Syrians, be they political opponents of Hariri, be they economic opponents of Hariri, etc., all feel angry. And when a certain temperature is reached, someone — some dark person — will step forward from the shadows and say to all of the world, gentlemen, can I be of assistance? In other words, there’s a kind of unwritten alliance of opponents of enemies of a person which needs to exist before events like yesterday take place in Lebanon. The idea that in some Hollywood way, a dictator or an autocrat says, “kill this man,” this is — this may be CNN or ABC’s version of events, but it’s not real. The real event is actually much more dramatic and rather more chilling, but I think Hariri had a lot of enemies, as well as a lot of friends. Enemies in the business world. He was a huge property owner, property buyer. He was always buying huge areas of Beirut. I remember once saying to him, is it true that you bought Raoucheh, up the hill from my home. He said, I think so, I can’t remember. Quite a few businessmen were bitterly, bitterly hostile towards him, because they believed that their own property and wealth had been diminished to the point of zero by the extraordinary tornado of Hariri’s business acumen. Now, these are Lebanese, not Syrian. But you can see how in a small country, where you have a very big man, not just physically, but politically, and particularly financially, you can have various nodules, if you like to use an old academic cliche, various groups of people, who don’t like him. And then add to that a political dislike within Lebanon, or add to that factions in a foreign country, let’s say Syria, and you can see that you reach a point where the oven gets white hot, at which point there’s a detonation. Now maybe that’s what happened yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I wanted to switch gears to Iraq or maybe it’s not completely switch gears.

ROBERT FISK: I want to write a story, actually. I’m going to have to interrupt you. I’m going to have to break off and do a story.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I just get a quick response, a very quick response on the election results?

ROBERT FISK: Swiftly, Amy, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: A quick response on the election results, and the reports out of A.P. that the choice for the race for prime minister has narrowed to interim Vice President Ibraham al-Jaffari and Achmed Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite?

ROBERT FISK: Yeah, well, look, the real question is what is the role in all of this of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest U.S. Embassy in the world, and Ambassador Negroponte whose reputation for supporting human rights and so on is obviously well-known to your listeners. The Shiites did not vote for Achmed Chalabi. They did not vote for coalitions. They voted for the establishment of Shiite power with, of course, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq. The Kurds did not vote for Iraq, they voted for Kurdistan. If you went to Kurdistan during the election, there wasn’t a single Iraqi flag flying. I actually flew into Erbil not long ago and discovered that the airport had been renamed, I think it was , [inaudible]. I can’t remember now, which is Kurdish for Erbil. Although I could read everything because it was in Arabic script, I couldn’t understand, there simply wasn’t any more Arabic language there. The Sunnis, as you know, either intimidated or through their own boycott didn’t vote. Very divisive election, but it did prove that the Shiites should be the power. If they’re not going to get power, the Shiites, whom President Bush claimed were, you know, the great danger themselves going to vote for democracy, but who in fact told us they were going to vote because they wanted an end to the American occupation, and they wanted their own majority status at 60% of the population represented in parliament and the government, are going to be very, very angry, indeed. But you know, it’s wheels within wheels. If the Americans construct a powerless coalition with one of their own satraps involved, and they do not permit, in effect, the Shiites who are 60% of the population, to have a controlling interest in the administration, especially when the Shiites have shown such forbearance towards the Sunnis and the Kurds. Then the worst dreams, the worst nightmares, if you like, of Americans, which is that the Shiites will join the insurgency, and they held the elections to try and stop them during the insurgency, will become reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, speaking from Beirut, Lebanon. The reporter for The Independent of London, was there minutes after the explosion that killed the former prime minister of Lebanon who was buried today. If would you like to hear the entire interview with Robert Fisk, you can go to our website at

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