Tensions Simmer in Lebanon Over Long-Running Assassination Probe

By Patrick Goodenough | March 30, 2010 | 4:17 AM EDT

A statue of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri stands next to the seafront road where he was killed by a truck bomb in February 2005 near the St. George's Hotel (at right) in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

(CNSNews.com) – As the international investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri moves towards identifying those responsible, allies of Syria and Hezbollah – both of which have come under suspicion in the plot – say the probe is being “politicized.”
Earlier this month the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) said in a report that its prosecutor had “made significant progress towards building a case which will bring perpetrators to justice.” The tribunal was also “getting closer to identifying the suspected suicide bomber by narrowing down the individual’s geographic origin and partially reconstructing the individual’s face.”
Some have voiced fear that the country’s fragile stability could collapse and sectarian conflict could erupt again over claims that the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah had a hand in the death of the popular Sunni leader, the father of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told his Shi’ite organization’s al-Manar television channel that he will, in the next day or two, speak publicly about circulating reports – apparently based on leaks from the STL – that investigators are questioning Hezbollah members.
Hariri and 22 others were killed in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut in February 2005. The STL officially opened in March 2009, but before that a U.N.-established independent commission said it had found evidence implicating senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials.
Claims of Hezbollah involvement in the killing first emerged almost a year ago, when Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine, citing sources close to the STL, said investigations had established links between the Shi’ite group and the truck and a mobile phone used by the plotters.
The report fed speculation that Syria may have tasked Hezbollah – which has been linked to numerous bombings in Lebanon and abroad over the past three decades – to carry out the attack on its behalf.
The tribunal at the time declined to comment, and Hezbollah dismissed the claims as an Israeli smear. (Syria has denied involvement throughout.)
But reports that tribunal investigators were now questioning Hezbollah members have caused fresh anxiety.
A Lebanese politician with close ties to Syria, Wi’am Wahhab, said he believed the STL wanted to question 20 Hezbollah members.
He also claimed to have information suggesting that the probe was looking into the possibility that Hezbollah’s security chief at the time, Imad Mughniyah, was involved in the plot to kill Hariri.
Mughniyah, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, was himself killed in a bombing in Damascus in February 2008, for which Hezbollah blames Israel.
The tribunal, as before, has declined to comment, calling the speculation “unfortunate and unhelpful.”
It also said that the STL prosecutor does not leak information to the media, and if the prosecutor’s office wants to share information with the public it does so publicly and on the record.
And it warned that anyone else entrusted with confidential information who violated trust through unauthorized disclosure would be held accountable.
Saad Hariri, the U.S.-backed leader of the ruling March 14 alliance, said Monday that the Lebanese would accept whatever conclusion the tribunal reached, and warned that the country’s armed forces would hit hard at any attempt by foment strife over the affair, or to hamper the work of the tribunal.
“The military, and internal security forces are trusted to preserve the Lebanese people’s security,” Beirut’s Daily Star quoted him as telling reporters while on an official visit to Bulgaria. “There is no room to play with the country’s security and we will stand firm against attempts to abolish the STL.”
‘Casting doubt’
Claims that the STL investigation has been “politicized” have dogged it from the outset. Critics charge that opponents of Hezbollah and its Syrian patron are using it to try to weaken their influence in Lebanon.
In an interview with a Gulf newspaper last year, Syrian President Bashir Assad warned that if the STL investigation was politicized, “Lebanon will be the first to pay the price.”
The Phalangist Party, a member of the March 14 coalition, noted Monday that the “refrain” about the tribunal being politicized was making a comeback – “as if some sides fear the judgment of justice and are trying to anticipate the verdicts by casting doubt over the impartiality of the tribunal and its integrity.”
Wahhab, the pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, said he was concerned that the STL would be used as a “U.S. tool” to put pressure on Hezbollah as well as its other main backer, Iran.
Hezbollah operates both as an armed militia – which has repeatedly refused U.N. Security Council calls to disarm – and as a political party. Following elections last year it leads an opposition bloc which holds one-third of the seats in Lebanon’s “national unity” cabinet and controls 57 seats in the 128-member parliament.
Syria dominated Lebanon for decades, and Rafik Hariri opposed the presence of some 15,000 Syrian troops in his country. In the aftermath of his assassination, Assad was finally pressured, by the U.S. and others, to withdraw Syrian forces.
Washington downgraded diplomatic ties with Damascus after Hariri was killed. The Obama administration’s efforts to restore relations and re-engage Syria saw recent appeals to Assad to distance himself from both Hezbollah and Iran.
Assad’s response to the U.S. appeal was to hold a three-way meeting with Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad late last month, reinforcing their alliance.
Last week, Assad again voiced disdain about the STL and the direction its investigation was taking.
“There is a bazaar now, the bazaar of international tribunals,” he told Hezbollah’s TV station. “Maybe they would achieve something. If we want to deal with stories and novels, then it’s better for them to publish books. Maybe someone would buy them.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow