2005 Assassination Stokes Political Crisis in Lebanon

September 24, 2010 - 9:17 AM

Beirut (AP) - "The Truth" was the rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of angry Lebanese who took to the streets of Beirut five years ago demanding to know who was behind the assassination of their hero, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Their movement helped reshape Lebanon's politics.

But now the quest to uncover and prosecute Hariri's killers threatens to tear the country apart.

The possibility that the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder could indict members of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah -- perhaps as soon as next month -- is fueling Lebanon's worst political crisis in years.

Deep feuds between Western-backed parties and Hezbollah worsened this week, raising fears they could bring down the fragile unity government in which both serve, and which is led by the slain leader's son, Saad Hariri.

"The country has been drowning in a war of words," Prime Minister Hariri said this week. "The Lebanese are deeply anxious and some believe that we are on the edge of a renewed wave of destruction. This is not the image we want to portray to the world."

But Hariri also rejected demands from Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies that he push to shut down the Netherlands-based tribunal. If Hezbollah members are accused, many fear it could lead to violence between the heavily armed guerrilla force and Hariri's mainly Sunni allies.

The bombing that killed Rafik Hariri and 22 other people along Beirut's Mediterranean waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005 was one of the most dramatic political assassinations the Mideast has seen. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Suspicion fell on neighboring Syria, since Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of the country. Syria has denied having any role in the murder, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus. Huge street demonstrations helped end Syria's 29-year military presence, paving the way for pro-Western parties to head the government in subsequent elections.

But since then, the tack of the investigation appears to have changed. Four pro-Syrian generals arrested early on were released last year for lack of evidence. Though the tribunal has not yet named any individuals or countries as suspects, Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has announced that he expects members of his group to be indicted. He vows not to hand them over to be prosecuted.

In a stunning reversal this month, Hariri said it had been a mistake to blame Damascus for his father's killing. He also has shuttled to Damascus five times in the last nine months to try to repair the relationship.

Supporters of Syria and Hezbollah have scrambled to discredit the tribunal, saying it was poisoned by witnesses giving false information. Tensions heightened this month after one of the generals initially arrested launched bruising personal attacks on the younger Hariri. Jamil al-Sayyed, who headed Lebanon's security services at the time of the assassination, said the prime minister "sold his father's blood" to frame Syria, and was behind the "false witnesses."

He said Hariri must be held accountable or "I will do it someday with my own hands."

The state prosecutor summoned him questioning, but he said he would not comply.

Over the weekend, Hezbollah sent a crew of gunmen to Rafik Hariri International Airport to pick up al-Sayyed after he flew in from Paris, presumably to protect him from arrest. Critics said the show of force amounted to an armed takeover of the airport.

Hariri's backers struck back, accusing al-Sayyed of trying to blackmail Hariri for $15 million in exchange for dropping the charges that Hariri was behind the false witnesses.

Pro-Syrian Christian politician Suleiman Franjieh said in a television interview late Thursday that if Hezbollah members are indicted "there will be war in Lebanon."

"The atmosphere is waiting for the spark," Franjieh said.

Some Lebanese are now saying the investigation may not be worth the chaos its findings might create.

"If the tribunal is going to lead to strife, then let's all agree on canceling it," said Walid Jumblatt, a political leader of the Druse sect who once was among the tribunal's leading supporters.

Wiam Wahhab, a pro-Syrian politician, warned on Hezbollah's TV station that it would take more than a decade for the tribunal to pore through all the evidence, putting Lebanon in a dangerous limbo.

"Are we going to keep the country in mourning?" he asked. "What is needed today is for the tribunal to be brought down immediately in order for the country to relax."

But Hariri and his supporters insist the tribunal will go forward.

The disputes are intensifying a long-running power struggle between Hariri's supporters and Hezbollah that exploded into street violence in Beirut in May 2008. Fear over chaos stemming from indictments is so strong in the region that in July, the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia -- once bitter rivals -- traveled to Lebanon together in an unprecedented show of cooperation to calm tempers.

Jamil K. Mroue, editor in chief of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, lamented that the country is in uproar before the indictments have even been announced.

"The country's politicians are creating the consequences of the indictment before the court takes any action," he wrote in an editorial. "Broad swaths of the public space are deteriorating over pure hearsay."