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The spectre of strife looms ahead of UN indictments in 2005 Hariri murder

Monuments have risen to honor slain leader Rafiq Hariri (Steven Damron)


Lebanon is an edgy place these days, as a UN-backed special tribunal prepares to charge suspects in the February 2005 bombing assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. If members of the Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah are among those indicted, some worry that this strategic, violence-prone country of 4.2 million could descend again into civil war.

Political assassinations were hardly new to Lebanon, often targeting influential journalists and politicians who'd spoken out against Syria's interference in their country. But the car bomb that killed Hariri and 22 others was on a different order of magnitude, requiring the smuggling of two tons of explosives into Lebanon and intimate knowledge of one of the Arab world's richest, and most well-protected, political leaders.

A recent, devastating Canadian Broadcasting Channel investigation brought out into the open an accusation of what had long been rumored in journalistic and political circles: members of Hezbollah – which has since entered mainstream politics -- carried out the assassination.

With suspicions originally focused on Syrian operators, the earliest hints of Hezbollah involvement emerged in August 2007 when the government announced the discovery of a private, parallel phone network operated by Hezbollah outside the realm of the government. Nine months later, the government announced its own investigation into the telecom network. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, now allied with Hariri's son and current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, stated at the time that Hezbollah was using the private network to plan assassinations of senior political figures in Lebanon. Hezbollah said it required the network to protect the country from Israeli encroachment.

The probe of the bombing has had victims of its own. One of the investigators, a Lebanese army captain named Wissam Eid, had traced a short phone call from a Hezbollah member to his girlfriend, which led to a chain of cell phones used to coordinate the 2005 explosion. During a meeting with Hezbollah members to discuss the phone issue, Eid was warned that the matter involved national security and should drop his line of inquiry. In January 2008, two days after he approached the UN to share the breakthrough, Eid was killed in a car bombing.

As the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon pressed on with its task, Hezbollah went public with its denunciation of the international court. The rhetoric continues to rise, as members just this week issued a typically ambiguous yet ominous warning that targeting Hezbollah "will only backfire for the parties behind it."

Hezbollah ("Party of God") is more than simply a heavily armed militia that rules parts of Beirut and south Lebanon with almost no interference from the state. Not only could its one million followers effectively shut down Lebanon in a matter of hours, which it demonstrated in 2008, it is also a major opposition party with a decisive vote in the Cabinet. And with Saad Hariri currently ruling without a clear popular majority, the standoff over the pending indictments has left his government deadlocked.

The Party of God insists that the investigation into the Hariri assassination is actually an Israeli plot that should be handled internally, preferably by Hezbollah itself. Hariri's March 14th coalition supports the tribunal, with the Prime Minister telling Newsweek this week that there can be no stability in Lebanon without justice.

For now, there is "total paralysis of state institutions, including the government, which is incapable of taking any decision," Sami Salhab, a law professor at the Lebanese University, told AFP on Wednesday.

No one knows exactly how Hezbollah will respond to the likely indictments of its members. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said that his party would "cut the hand off" anyone indicting them. Coming from an Arab leader known for making literal statements, the remark has Beirut worried about a return to civil war. How far will it go to block arrests? Would Hezbollah turn its guns on the Lebanese army? On civilians?

Hezbollah's main backer, Iran, stepped into the fray this week, with Ayatollah Ali Khamanei echoing word for word Nasrallah's comments that any tribunal verdict would be "null and void" as "this tribunal is receiving orders from elsewhere." Hariri answered simply: "We in Lebanon, as a government, have our own views of the tribunal."

Lebanon has always been strong enough to withstand wars, but too weak to avoid manipulation by regional powers. In his quest for justice, both for his country and his family, Hariri finds himself staring down the barrel of Hezbollah's Iranian-bought, Syria-imported gun, one which may or may not be loaded.

Kristen Gillespie


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