Investigators Attacked in Lebanon While Probing 2005 Hariri Assassination

By Patrick Goodenough | October 28, 2010 | 5:18 AM EDT

Hezbollah supporters wave flags in Beirut during the 2009 election campaign. (AP Photo)

( – An attack on international investigators probing the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is seen as part of a campaign by Hezbollah to obstruct the inquiry before it indicts members of the Shi’ite terrorist group.

The controversy surrounding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has sparked fears that Lebanon’s fragile U.S.-backed government could collapse, and that a fresh outbreak of Shi’ite-Sunni violence could allow Hezbollah to tighten its grip on the small country, with serious implications for the wider region.

The United States and France, two of the Western countries most heavily invested in Lebanon’s stability, have reiterated their support for the politically explosive investigation, which Hezbollah and Syria actively are trying to sabotage.

Two STL investigators accompanied by a Lebanese interpreter were attacked Wednesday by scores of screaming women as they sought medical records at a clinic in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of south Beirut.

Lebanon’s Murr Television reported that the group included women wearing niqabs and veils, and that there were likely men in women’s garb among them.

The Hague-based STL said in a statement that “a large group of people showed up unexpectedly and violently attacked the investigators and their female interpreter.”

“The Lebanese army extracted the three staff members and brought them back safely to the STL Beirut Office where they were provided with medical attention,” it said, adding that the violence would not deter the tribunal from its mission.

During the melee, a briefcase belonging to one of the team was snatched. The tribunal did not say what documents it contained.

A senior member of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s March 14 alliance, Farid Makari, issued a statement saying the “method of using ordinary people” to carry out such attacks was a “registered trademark” of Hezbollah.

If the group was not involved in the assassination and had nothing to fear from the probe, it “would not send a group of women to attack the investigators to prevent them from performing their work,” said Makari, the deputy speaker of the Lebanese parliament.

Lebanese Dr. Iman Sharara speaks to journalists in her clinic south of Beirut on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010 after women stormed her clinic and attacked international investigators probing the 2005 assassination of a former prime minister. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station blamed the incident on the STL staffers, saying they had barged into the clinic and upset women there awaiting treatment.

However, the doctor in charge of the women’s clinic, Iman Sharara, said she had canceled all patient appointments on Wednesday morning because the investigators had scheduled a visit with her. Sharara said she had been shocked at the sight of the screaming and abusive women.

Moreover, Lebanese media cited security officials as saying the women had arrived by bus, an indication that the incident was orchestrated.

“Is it a coincidence that 150 women happened to be passing by when it happened?” asked Elie Marouni, a lawmaker from a Maronite party in the March 14 alliance.

Multifaceted effort to sabotage investigation

Rafik Hariri, the father of the current prime minister, was killed in a 2005 car bombing in Beirut that also claimed 22 other lives.

The Sunni billionaire businessman had taken a stand against Syria’s political and military domination of Lebanon, and his death triggered a protest movement which, accompanied by U.S.-led diplomatic pressure, led to the withdrawal of 15,000 Syrian troops.

An initial U.N. investigation implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials. That inquiry led to the establishment in 2007 of the STL, which is expected soon to issue indictments.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah disclosed this year that Hezbollah members have been interviewed and are likely to be indicted. He has denied any involvement in the assassination.

Syrian President Bashir Assad and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in February 2010. (Photo: Hezbollah/Moqawama Web site)

Nasrallah and Syrian President Bashir Assad, along with their ally Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have all accused the STL of being part of a “Zionist” plot.

The campaign to undermine investigation had been multi-pronged.

Nasrallah in a speech last August charged that Israel was behind the killing.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, is using its position in government to try to block funding for the STL. The Lebanese government meets 49 percent of the tribunal’s costs, with the rest coming from the international community.

Then Syria early this month issued arrest warrants for 33 people including “judges, security officers, politicians, journalists and other Lebanese, Arab and foreign individuals” whom Damascus accuses of giving false testimony to the STL in a bid to implicate Syria.

A pro-Syrian newspaper in Lebanon, Al Akhbar, cited Syrian government officials Wednesday as saying Assad believed it was “time to replace” Hariri.

Pro-Hezbollah and pro-Syrian figures in Lebanon have also stepped up statements aimed at discrediting the tribunal and pressuring Hariri to withdraw his support for it.

Michel Aoun, a former army chief and political faction leader now allied to Hezbollah, said Tuesday the STL was undermining Lebanon’s stability, and he questioned why the U.S. had not taken a similar interest in the assassinations of Lebanese politicians before Hariri.

Nabih Berri, the powerful Shi’ite parliamentary speaker who also is an ally of Hezbollah, traveled to Paris this week and tried to urge the French government to drop its support for the STL. 

He told various top French politicians that “the Lebanese” viewed the STL as politicized and did not trust it. The European Union could help resolve the political crisis in Lebanon if France was willing to meet its “responsibilities,” he said.

The apparent hint for France to drop its backing for the tribunal failed. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after meeting with Berri that France would not support the abolition of the STL even if Lebanese politicians agree on the matter.

The Obama administration sent Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman to Beirut last week to reiterate U.S. support for the tribunal and for Lebanon’s stability.

The last time Hezbollah flexed its muscles was in May 2008, when its gunmen took over parts of Beirut after the government tried to dismantle a telecommunications network run by the group.

In the worst sectarian violence since the country’s civil war ended in 1990, more than 80 people were killed.

If anything, Hezbollah has become even bolder since those clashes. Along with its allies it controls 10 of the 30 seats in the Hariri-led “unity” cabinet.

Hezbollah received a massive morale boost this month when Ahmadinejad paid a high-profile visit to Lebanon, touring the group’s strongholds in the south near the tense border with Israel.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow