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A Beirut horror story

From the outside looking in, Beirut sometimes appears to be an endless horror story. A car bomb here, an assassination there, even a Showtime series that depicts it as a war-wracked city where militias runs amok over the trendiest of neighborhoods. This portrayal has always been an exaggeration -- but today, it became a little closer to the truth.

This afternoon, a car bomb ripped through Beirut's Sassine Square, a main commercial center in Ashrafieh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood. Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Internal Security Forces' Information Branch, has been reportedly killed in the blast.

In Lebanon, each security branch is a fiefdom of a different political party. Hassan wasn't just a non-partisan official, but widely recognized as the central ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, the country's most important Sunni party. As FP contributor Elias Muhanna writes, Hassan had "long been the target of...ire" from Lebanon's pro-Assad political alliance. Hassan had been riding high: His branch had just arrested Michel Samaha, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's staunchest allies in Beirut, on charges of plotting attacks against Christian areas on orders of the Syrian regime.

For Hariri and his anti-Assad allies, then, this looks like payback: They struck a blow against one of Assad's men, so the Syrian regime took revenge by killing the man who orchestrated the arrest. The backlash is already brewing: Lebanese press outlets have reported scattered clashes and blocked roads in areas of Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli that are typically flashpoints for violence. 

Lebanon has muddled through the Syrian revolt under what Prime Minister Najib Miqati calls "disassociation" -- it would neither offer its support to the Assad regime, or the rebels trying to topple it. "What is happening in Syria is very unfortunate, but at the same time we cannot take the country to something similar," former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a supporter of the policy, told me a few weeks ago in Beirut. "We had our share -- for years. And we know what civil war is about."

That carefully constructed façade has always shown a few cracks: Hezbollah fighters are widely suspected to be fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, while Hariri ally Okab Saqr is reportedly working from Turkey to funnel weapons to the anti-Assad rebels.

But now, the entire effort to keep Lebanon out of Syria's war could come crashing down. And if that happens, Beirut could turn into something all too similar to what you see on the movie screen.

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Two small shifts on abortion rights

There have been two headline-grabbing developments in the global abortion debate this week, though both are a bit less than meets the eye. In Uruguay, the senate voted to legalize first timester abortions, which would make it only the third country in Latin America -- after Cuba and Guyana -- where the procedure is legal. (It is also legal in Mexico City and, in cases of rape and incest, in Colombia.) However, the law only passed after some pretty serious compromises from its supporters:

The legislation requires a woman to explain her desire to have an abortion to a panel of at least three people, including a gynecologist, social worker and mental health professional, who must discuss abortion-related health risks and alternatives including adoption. After meeting with the panel, a woman must then reflect for five days before finally opting to have an abortion.

Even with those serious caveats, the law comes as part of what seems like a fairly remarkable period of social liberalization in South America that includes Argentina's recently-passed landmark transgender rights law. Uruguay recognizes civil unions for same-sex couples, as does Brazil. President Jose Mujica is also pushing internationally controversial legislation to legalize marijuana.

Across the Atlantic, Ireland and Northern Ireland are outliers on the other side. The Emerald Isle, along with Poland, are the only places in the EU where abortion is banned under most circumstances. 

Ireland's first abortion clinic opened today in Belfast, amid protests from religious groups.  But here, too, there are major restrictions: 

The Marie Stopes family planning center will offer the abortion pill to women who are less than nine weeks pregnant — but only if doctors determine they're at risk of death or long-term health damage from their pregnancy.

The fact that Ireland's abortion restructions remain -- on either side of the border -- is a bit surprising given the precipitous decline of the Catholic Church's influence and overall religiosity there. According to the AP, about 4,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and 1,000 from Northern Ireland travel to Britain every year for abortions. 

With increasing pressure from the European Union, that may change soon.

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