Tensions Simmer in Lebanon Over Assassination Probe And Suspicions of a Deal

By Patrick Goodenough | August 4, 2010 | 4:26 AM EDT

Hezbollah supporters hold posters of Hassan Nasrallah during a rally in Beirut's southern suburbs on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

(CNSNews.com) – Tuesday’s deadly clash along the Israel-Lebanon border has added to tensions stoked by the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Some fear the results of the investigation could plunge both the country and region into new turmoil.
Arab leaders are trying to ensure that the findings of the U.N.-established Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), to be released in the coming months with accompanying indictments of suspects for trial, do not shatter Lebanon’s fragile stability.
The matter was high of the agenda during an unprecedented summit in Beirut last Friday between the leaders of Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The latter two have long been influential with Lebanon’s Shi’ite and Sunni parties respectively.
Lebanese media report there is mounting suspicion that a “deal” designed to avoid upheaval in the country may be in the works – even at the expense of finding and punishing those responsible for Hariri’s murder.
“Speculation is rife that a political deal will be made to minimize the impact of the indictments, though in truth we still do not know who will be indicted,” Rami Khouri, a columnist with the Daily Star in Beirut, wrote Wednesday.
Possible options cited by sources in media reports include pressuring the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to postpone the planned issuing of indictments and encouraging Prime Minister Saad Hariri – the assassinated politician’s son – to ask the tribunal not to take the indictments forward to trial.
On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said the tribunal was not looking for the truth about the killing but had a hidden political agenda.
The tribunal, based in The Hague, is widely reported to be preparing to indict members of Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shi’te terrorist group, on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of Hariri, a Sunni, who was killed along with 22 others in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut in February 2005.
One third of the cabinet led by the current U.S.-backed prime minister is controlled by Hezbollah and its allies.
Hezbollah, a militia whose existence as an armed group is in violation of U.N. resolutions, characterizes itself as a “resistance” working in the interests of all Lebanese. But it has not hesitated in the past to use naked power to get its way.
In May 2008 its gunmen took over parts of Beirut after the government tried to dismantle a telecommunications network run by the group, triggering the worst violence since the country’s civil war ended in 1990.
The crisis, which brought government to a standstill, ended only with the formation of a unity government in a deal that gave Hezbollah effective veto power.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned that he will not accept any STL indictments accusing members of his organization. The U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, late last week voiced concern that the tribunal’s findings “may affect Lebanon’s stability.”
The STL began its work in March 2009, after a U.N.-established independent commission said it found evidence implicating senior Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials in Hariri’s assassination.
Syria has a long history of military and political interference in its small neighbor. Hariri was a popular politician who opposed President Bashir Assad’s attempts to manipulate Lebanese politics by forcing the unconstitutional term extension of a pro-Syrian Lebanese president.
The assassination sparked a wave of public demonstrations in Beirut and accelerated the end of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon.
Hariri’s death and suspicions of Syrian involvement also prompted the United States to downgrade diplomatic ties with Damascus. The Obama administration is seeking to restore relations, but its appeals to Assad to sever links to both Hezbollah and Iran have been manifestly unsuccessful.
Both Syria and Hezbollah have denied any responsibility in Hariri’s death.
An Israeli television station, citing sources in the STL, said last week those indicted would include a senior Hezbollah figure, Mustafa Badr al Din, identified as the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyah, the organization’s former security chief. (Mughniyah, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, was himself killed in a bombing in Damascus in February 2008.)
For his part, Nasrallah said during a speech to supporters Tuesday that he would soon release evidence showing that Israel was in fact behind the Hariri killing.
“This coming Monday, I will hold a press conference during which I will present evidence of Israel’s involvement in Hariri’s assassination and the goings-on in the international tribunal in The Hague,” he said.
“After the press conference, Lebanese authorities should take the initiative and seriously take into consideration the facts that will be revealed,” Hezbollah’s al-Manar television channel quoted him as saying.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah was ready to work with the government, “to uncover the real criminals behind the Rafik Hariri murder.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow