BEIRUT, Lebanon - A prominent anti-Syrian leader of Lebanon's fragile pro-Western government was gunned down Tuesday in a brazen political assassination that dramatically increased the chances that the nation could plunge into a renewed civil war.
Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, the descendant of a prominent Christian political dynasty, was killed in a lightning afternoon attack on the eve of Lebanon's independence day.
Politicians from Lebanon's rival religious sects joined leaders from around the world in condemning the assassination and urging stunned mourners not to allow Gemayel's death to drag the country into a new conflict.
President Bush said it exposed the "viciousness of those who are trying to destabilize the country" and vowed to stand with Lebanon "in the face of attempts by Syria, Iran and their allies within Lebanon to foment instability and violence."
But there were signs in the hours after the shooting that clashes might erupt. Angry demonstrators, accusing Syria and its Lebanese allies of orchestrating the attack, erected barricades in the streets, burned tires and called for revenge.
"Amin, don't frown. If you want soldiers, we will put on soldiers' uniforms," red-eyed mourners chanted as Gemayel's father, Amin, a former Lebanese president, emerged from the hospital where his 34-year-old son died of his wounds.
Amin Gemayel called on hundreds of supporters to remain calm as the family prepared for a mass funeral and demonstration on Thursday. "We don't want vengeance," he said.
Gemayel's death comes at a precarious time for Lebanon and for U.S. policy in the Muslim world, which is already challenged by the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the persistent threat from al-Qaida and the growing appeal of Islamist groups in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.
Last summer's 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah enhanced that militant Shiite group's stature in Lebanon and elsewhere, and Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have been trying to expand their political power at the expense of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's coalition government. The government's fall would be a serious blow to the Bush administration's efforts to promote Middle East democracy and curb Hezbollah and its main patrons, Iran and Syria.
Earlier this week, Nasrallah urged his followers to prepare to take their demands for more government posts to the streets, and protests were expected to begin as soon as Thursday.
Gemayel's assassination threatens to undercut the admiration that Nasrallah gained across the Lebanese political spectrum during the war against Israel. But the attack also could spark open warfare between anti-Syrian Lebanese militias and the more powerful Syrian-backed forces, including Hezbollah.
Outside the hospital, at Gemayel's political headquarters and around makeshift curbside memorials for the slain politician, angry supporters cursed Nasrallah and accused Hezbollah of doing the bidding of its main Middle East backers.
"It's like a mafia, and it is powered by Iran and Syria," said Daisy Kassouf, 20, a law student who rushed to the hospital when she heard about Gemayel's assassination.
Hezbollah leaders and their Lebanese allies echoed the condemnation of the assassination and said they'd rethink their plans for street demonstrations.