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Lebanon: People Want 'Truth,' But Not All Welcome Mehlis Report

Is Lebanon sure it wants to know who did this? (AFP) On 11 December, the independent investigator in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri submitted his final report to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The investigator, Detlev Mehlis from Germany, said on 12 December that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services coordinated the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others, and 19 Syrian and Lebanese officials are suspects.

In Lebanon it is difficult to forget about the assassination of Hariri. The scene of the bombing in Beirut is blocked off, but one can easily view its physical impact -- a huge crater and heavily damaged buildings. Throughout the city, furthermore, there are posters featuring Hariri and demanding "truth." One building, in fact, has a counter that displays the number of days since the assassination took place. While some Lebanese are eager for answers and eagerly anticipate the Mehlis report, others are concerned about its focus on Syria. Tehran, meanwhile, is emphatic in its support for Damascus.

Implicating Syria

An initial draft of the Mehlis report was released in October. It found that the assassination was several months in the making, and it was carried out by a group with "an extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities." It went on to describe evidence of Syrian and Lebanese involvement, noted the extensive presence in Lebanon of Syrian military intelligence, and added that former Lebanese security officials were Syrian appointees. Syrian and Lebanese intelligence reportedly infiltrated Lebanese institutions and society, the report added, and "it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."

At the end of October, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1636, which demanded Syrian cooperation in the investigation and the availability of Syrian security officials for questioning. Damascus agreed, on 25 November, that five Syrian officials would travel to Vienna to answer Mehlis's questions. They did so in December, but the report issued on 12 December refers to “reluctance and procrastination” by the Syrian authorities.

Seeking The Truth

Amin Gemayel served as Lebanon's president from 1982-88, and he now heads the Al-Kataeb party, which is part of the governing coalition. An Al-Kataeb member, Pierre Gemayel, currently serves as industry minister. The former president stressed the importance of the Mehlis investigation in a 9 December interview with RFE/RL in Beirut.

"Discovering the truth concerning the death -- the assassination -- of Hariri is essential," Amin Gemayel said. "First of all, to consolidate the Lebanese consensus, and second, to normalize the relations with Syria. Truth is the base. You can't build a national consensus or normalize our relations with Syria based on the 'non-truth.' Non-truth leads nowhere -- to suspicion and fears."

One of the Al-Kataeb party's main objectives is "sovereignty," Gemayel explained. "For us, sovereignty means that no foreign forces on our soil without the real legal and constitutional acceptance by Lebanon through a very rigid process." Gemayel said it was though such processes that Lebanon accepted the presence of multinational forces in the 1980s or of UN observer missions later. "There was a very rigid and specific process to accept foreign forces, not like when the Syrians were there, or when the Pasdaran [Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps], the Iranians and so forth."

Shi'ite Parties Speak Out

Shi'ite political organizations in Lebanon have a fairly close relationship with Syria, and their representatives are critical of the international investigation into the Hariri assassination. Ali K. Hamdan, a member of Amal's political bureau, told RFE/RL on 8 December that it is important to get to the truth in Hariri's killing. However, Hamdan continued, the constant criticism of Syria undermines the 1989 Ta'if Accords, which he credited with ending the country's civil war and creating a more balanced distribution of power in a system that previously favored the Maronite Christian minority. (The accords also legitimized the deployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon.) "We must close this chapter," Hamdan said.

Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizballah, also believes that it is important to get to the truth in this case. Nasrallah said in a 28 October speech in southern Beirut that everybody wants the truth, Al-Manar television reported. Fearing that the case would become politicized, he continued, Hizballah advocated a Lebanese-Saudi investigative committee or one within the Arab League framework. "What we see today is using the Mehlis report as a pretext to punish Syria for a crime in which it has not yet been proven to be involved," Nasrallah said. "They want to punish it for its political and strategic options."

Nasrallah was even more emphatic in his defense of Syria in a 25 November speech, Al-Manar reported. "We have been, and will remain, friends to Syria; we are proud of this friendship. We have been friends to Syria since 1982.... We do not hide our friendship with Syria and we are not embarrassed by it."

Turning to the issue of Hariri's assassination, Nasrallah said all Lebanese should help the investigation. "This means that we should help Syria, too. We should help and not corner Syria." Nasrallah added, "We are the only Lebanese party that benefited from Syria for the sake of liberating Lebanon, and benefited from Iran for the sake of liberating Lebanon as well."

Support From Tehran

Great Britain, France, and the United States backed UN Resolution 1636, and it was unanimously adopted by the Security Council, thereby implying that the international community is behind it. But at least one country, Iran, has been unflagging in its support for Syria.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad telephoned his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad on 4 November and reassured him of Tehran's backing in the face of international pressure, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and SANA reported. Ahmadinejad and al-Assad discussed regional developments by telephone on 18 November as well, IRNA reported.

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki arrived in Damascus on 14 November, Iranian state television reported. "Vigilance, consultation, and cooperation between the regional countries will prevent the enemies of this region from implementing their ill intentions," Mottaki said when he arrived. "The Americans are following specific objectives in the region with the aim of bolstering the Zionist regime's interests." According to SANA, furthermore, Mottaki praised Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis investigation.

Hizballah's Hassan Nasrallah traveled to Damascus at this time to meet with Mottaki, "The Daily Star" reported on 16 November. An anonymous Hizballah official told the newspaper that this would be normal, and he added that Nasrallah's position is similar to Mottaki's. "Nasrallah has also echoed similar stances on almost every occasion," the unnamed official said. "Any meeting with Mottaki would be placed within this framework. This is not a secret."

Mottaki met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara on 19 November on the sidelines of a conference on Iraq in Cairo, IRNA reported the next day. They discussed the Mehlis report, and Mottaki emphasized their countries' unity against foreign pressure.

Where To Now?

Mehlis has said that he will not continue with the investigation into Hariri's killing, although the investigation itself will continue for at least another six months. It is not known who will succeed the German investigator. There is little question, however, that most Lebanese want to know the truth. The massive rallies in February that turned into what has been called the Cedar Revolution, as well as the rallies that followed the 12 December killing by a roadside bomb of Gibran Tueni, a Lebanese legislator and critic of Syrian involvement in his country's affairs, are proof that this case cannot be swept away.