BEIRUT, Lebanon – Rafik Hariri was a moderate leader with a strong presence, someone the opposition could rally around heading into upcoming elections that have turned on the bitter fight over Syria's military presence. That role was perhaps his undoing.
The former prime minister was killed Monday by a bomb that shattered his heavily protected motorcade of armor-plated vehicles on a seafront Beirut street. Thirteen other people were also killed. Another 100 were injured.
For now it is unclear whether parliamentary elections that had been expected in April and May will be delayed.
Hariri had served as prime minister for 10 of the last 14 years. But he died as part of the opposition — pushed out in October in a power struggle with pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud (search) and, some say, denied the Syrian backing that would have guaranteed his stay in office.
But despite his move toward the anti-Syrian opposition, Hariri did not break with Damascus entirely.
Instead he defined his own opposition course by choosing the middle road between the government's staunch pro-Syrian line and the opposition's increasingly bold campaign to push the Syrian army out of Lebanon.
His death strips the opposition of the politician with the most momentum, money and prominence — the person mostly likely to translate election victories into policy changes that could lead to a Syrian troop withdrawal.
His death also denies Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community — the group allotted the premiership in Lebanon's division of power — its strongest leader. A political novice 15 years ago, Hariri's rise eclipsed the traditional Sunni families that had produced generations of ministers and prime ministers.
"Our loss cannot be compensated," Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani (search), the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, said in eulogizing Hariri.
Never had the opposition been in such a strong position heading into elections, in part because of international pressure on Syria not to intervene. Syria had a major say in the three parliamentary elections since 1990.
Hariri headed the second biggest bloc in Parliament. His vast fortune — amassed from construction work in Saudi Arabia — his philanthropic bent, his media presence and his wide international contacts were all campaign assets.
Supporters of Syria had clearly felt his heat.
They had accused Hariri of being the driving force behind a September U.N. resolution sponsored by the United States and France demanding that the Syrian army leave Lebanon. Cabinet Minister Talal Arsalan had described him as the "venomous snake."
The United States said the assassination was a reminder that Syria's domination of its small neighbor — bolstered by 15,000 Syrian troops inside Lebanon — needs to end.
Lebanese opposition leaders, in a symbolic meeting at Hariri's Beirut mansion, said bluntly that they held Lebanese and Syrian governments "responsible," and demanded that the Syrian army leave.
But Syrian officials, from President Bashar Assad (search) in Damascus to his ambassador in Washington, denied involvement and expressed shock.
To the end, the former prime minister was careful not to antagonize Damascus. In his last published comments, Hariri was quoted by As-Safir newspaper on Monday as saying he had intervened to moderate some anti-Syrian positions — and insisted that an opposition election victory would not mean a defeat for Syria.
"We will be the most keen about relations with it, and about its interests," he said.