CAIRO, Egypt – Leaders across the Middle East condemned the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), fearing it would reopen old wounds and threaten the fragile Palestinian-Israeli truce.
The massive attack in Beirut on Monday — killing 14 people, igniting 20 cars and shattering windows a mile away — stunned a country that has been relatively stable since civil war ended in 1990. Hariri had been credited with guiding the reconstruction of Lebanon after the civil war of 1975-90.
"The Arab Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stresses its total rejection [of] such terrorist acts that target innocent lives and spread chaos and destruction," Saudi Information Minister Iyad Madani said after a Cabinet meeting.
Hariri was Lebanon's prime minister for 10 of the 14 years after the civil war. He forged close ties with Middle East leaders as he tried to mend political differences and rebuild his country.
The deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan (search), urged the Lebanese to close ranks "so that the perpetrators of this crime, who are the enemies of Lebanon, will not have the opportunity to target the country's unity."
Tension in Lebanon has been escalating since the U.N. Security Council passed a U.S. and French-sponsored resolution in September essentially calling for Syria to back off of Lebanon, a country where it has about 15,000 troops and political dominance.
In the background, many wondered about the attack's potential impact on ongoing Arab-Israeli security talks, which so far have not included Syria and are opposed by militant groups with Syrian support.
Lebanon, largely because of Syrian influence, remains an important part of the Mideast peace equation.
The Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah (search), which is backed by Syria and Iran, has been launching occasional attacks on Israeli forces in a disputed area near the Lebanese-Israeli border, and Israeli officials recently accused the group of plotting to assassinate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) to scuttle a fragile truce.
There were concerns that attack might represent a stand against the recently secured Mideast truce or a hardening insistence on Syrian domination of Lebanon. Lebanese opponents of Syria's role in their country quickly blamed Damascus.
Islamic Jihad called the attack a "cowardly assassination" and said only the U.S. and Israel would benefit.
Assad urged Lebanese "to strengthen their national unity and oppose those who are seeking to sow divisions among the people," according to SANA, Syria's official news agency.
Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub (search), who has been involved in the recent Palestinian-Israeli peace overtures, said Lebanese stability is in Palestinian interests.
"The assassination of Hariri threatens regional security," Rajoub added.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres (search), apparently referring to Syrian influence in Lebanon, said "many innocent people lost their lives because they have a state within a state, an army within an army and respect for life is not high enough."
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) told Al-Arabiya TV that the attack "isn't only directed at Hariri but is targeting the Lebanese situation and the whole regional situation."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said in a statement that he hoped "this bloody assassination attempt will not be a return to the days of civil war in Lebanon," describing the bombing as a "red flag, a warning signal."
Lebanese opposition leaders gathered after Hariri issued a statement demanding Syrian troops leave Lebanon within three months and urged the international community to intervene to help "this captive nation."
"We hold the Lebanese authority and the Syrian authority, being the authority of tutelage in Lebanon, responsible for this crime and other similar crimes," they said in their statement read by legislator Bassem Sabei, a member of Hariri's parliamentary bloc.