Drive to rebuild Beirut turns to bombed-out U.S. Embassy


BEIRUT -- The big bulldozer of Boutros Farris pawed the ground. It caught, and with a snort of diesel smoke and clank of moving steel, ripped out the columns yesterday from under the old U.S. Embassy here.

The left third of the six-story building collapsed in a shroud of dust. A heap of rubble replaced the bombed-out building that has for 11 years stood as a grim symbol of the cost of U.S. involvement in the tangled Middle East.

A suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 killed 63 people and crushed American delusions that it could solve the problems in this region by sending in the Marines.

The blast was so strong that bodies were found in the sea 100 yards away. Six months later, another suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. Marines. In six months more, the U.S. military had pulled out.

Yesterday, the Lebanese government began to finish the work on the embassy begun by the terrorist's blast. This work, though, breathes with optimism: It is part of the government's program to rebuild Beirut and give the battered city new life.

But the old problems are not solved. Even as the embassy fell in reluctant surrender, U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher arrived in the Middle East yesterday to resume efforts to make peace between Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

One option being widely discussed would be to bring back American or United Nations troops to the region to serve as a peacekeeping, buffer force.

It was just such a mission that brought U.S. forces to Beirut in 1982. Israel's June invasion of Lebanon, trying to take advantage of the country's long civil war and finish off the Palestinians, had stalled. Israel laid siege to Beirut, killing thousands before the Palestinians left under a U.S.-brokered plan.

They were replaced by a multinational force of 5,000 French, U.S., Italian and British soldiers in Beirut. But some Muslim groups in Lebanon resented the Western presence as much as -- or more than -- the frequent intrusions of Syrians, Palestinians and Israelis.

On April 18, 1983, came a bloody "Yankee Go Home" message. A Chevrolet pickup truck raced through the gate of the U.S. Embassy, a tan building on a gracious sweep of the Mediterranean Sea in West Beirut. The truck sped past the startled Lebanese guards and plowed into the middle of the building.

The truck evidently was packed with dynamite. The blast was so great that it shook the USS Guadalcanal, anchored five miles away.

"It was like an earthquake," recalled Rashid Choucair, 24, who lived behind the embassy. "Everything moved in our house -- the glass, the windows, the doors."

U.S. Ambassador Robert Dillon was in his office, a phone to his ear and a T-shirt in hand getting ready for his afternoon jog. Aides dug him from the rubble, and they crawled out to a ledge to escape.

Others were not so lucky. One top official hung grotesquely from an upper balcony, the bottom half of his body crushed by concrete from above. Seventeen Americans were killed; most of the rest were Lebanese employees or pedestrians caught in the blast on the street.

On Oct. 23, 1983, a truck driven by a madly grinning man raced through the gate of the U.S. Marine Base at the Beirut airport and exploded. Another car bomb the same day at the French garrison killed 58 French soldiers.

Angered at the scenes of weeping Marines digging through the rubble for their comrades, the American public demanded a pullout. The bombers were never positively identified but are believed to have been Islamic militants. The same groups -- and Israel -- keep a small war going in southern Lebanon, and Islamic militants are blamed for recent bombings of Jewish targets in Buenos Aires and London.

In the Middle East, buildings are made from thick concrete -- walls, floors, ceilings. The blast at the embassy, as powerful as it was, ripped only one section from the building.

For 11 years, the mangled structure has remained, a reminder of the woes of Lebanon and the failures of U.S. involvement. Huge chunks of concrete dangled from upper floors, the flesh of the building hanging by tendons of steel rods.

Rooms were exposed by the collapse of the facade and were eventually occupied by squatters. Most of the desperate new residents had been driven from their homes by the long civil war. They took up shelter where they could find it.

They made do in the ruined building. They strung lines to light poles to pirate from the city's intermittent electric supply, hauled water up darkened stairs and used toilets whose pipes ended at the bottom floors.

The demolition of the embassy was not announced. A couple of days ago, police moved in and evicted 32 squatters. As part of the government's relocation program, they were paid $5,000 to $7,000 a family to find new quarters, according to Nader Mahmoud, a manager of the National Development Co., which has the contract for the work.

"There's no way those families can stay in Beirut," Mr. Mahmoud acknowledged. "It's too expensive here to find housing."

The haste of their departure was evident. Inside the darkened rooms was a scattering of personal effects. A broken mirror hinted of disrupted lives: ". . . for this evening . . . love you," read the remnants of the inscription written on it. In another room, an elegantly dressed woman looked from a photo at the squalid and abandoned room. A plant remained on a jutting balcony.

Mr. Mahmoud said there was no political timing in the work. His company has demolished 35 other buildings damaged in the civil war. Four other companies doing similar work for the government have torn down dozens more.

"We were at war for 17 years. Everything is destroyed. Now we need to rebuild," he said. "It's good to bring down this building. It was a bad memory of war."

"We are glad it is coming down. We want the Americans back," agreed a woman named Nadia, who lives in the neighborhood. The U.S. Embassy moved to a new, more fortified building. But Americans still are not legally allowed into Lebanon.

A small crowd gathered yesterday to watch the work. Mr. Mahmoud's company decided to tear out the building's underpinnings, rather than use explosives. Those watching said the government did not want the symbolism of another explosion at the U.S. Embassy, but Mr. Mahmoud said it was because dynamite is dangerous in the residential area.

Instead, Mr. Farris worked the throttles of a huge, 380-horsepower Caterpillar tractor -- the biggest in Lebanon, he said. Workers wrapped steel cables around the pillars of the embassy, and slowly he pulled each one out.

It was not an easy task. The building was made to be sturdy -- "back when concrete and labor were cheap," remarked Mr. Farris' partner, engineer Marwan al-Hoss. But "it was easier than getting a visa to America. I have applied four times," Mr. Farris grumbled later.

With tugging and maneuvering, the columns snapped one by one. Two hours later, the eighth of 12 columns gave way. Pieces of the building began falling, workers on the ground scattered and the building slid to the ground. A cloud of dusk cut the light, leaving a layer of grit on everyone.

Mr. Farris was to return today to work on the second and last

sections of the embassy. In three days, he predicted, the entire building would be down and the terrorists' work a bad memory.

"This was a horrible sight standing here," Mr. Hoss said. "Whatever people were there, we feel very sorry. They didn't deserve to die.

"Now Lebanon will have peace," he predicted. "It's not good to have buildings like this here anymore. God willing, we will build new ones."

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