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Saudi, Syrian Leaders Visit Beirut In Bid To Ease Sunni-Shi'ite Tensions


The visit comes amid concerns that clashes may break out between Lebanon's Shi'ite and Sunni communities if an international tribunal investigating Rafiq Hariri's February 2005 assassination implicates Hizballah, the Shi'ite militant group that is backed
The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria, King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are visiting Beirut today in a bid to calm tensions over possible indictments by a UN court against members of Hizballah for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

It is the first visit to Lebanon by Assad since the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri -- an event that soured bilateral relations and forced the pullout of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence there.

Assad and King Abdullah arrived together from Damascus this afternoon aboard King Abdullah's jetliner. They were greeted at Beirut airport by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- the son of the slain leader.

They were shuttled quickly to Lebanon's presidential palace for a mini-summit that was hastily organized to address tensions over reports of impending indictments against members of Lebanon's Shii'te militant Hizballah group for Rafiq Hariri's murder.

The visit comes amid concerns that clashes may break out between Lebanon's Shi'ite and Sunni communities if an international tribunal investigating Hariri's killing implicates Hizballah, the Shi'ite militant group that is backed by Iran and Syria.

Dealing With Damascus

Hariri was a Sunni leader who had strong links to Saudi Arabia. Many Lebanese initially blamed Syria for the bomb attack that killed Hariri -- alleging that Syria had a role in the 2005 assassination. But Damascus denies the charge.

A United Nations investigation into the killing pointed, at first, to possible Syrian involvement. More recently, Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah stoked tensions further on July 26 with a speech claiming the UN tribunal may indict some members of his group.

Analysts say any indictment of Hizballah members would severely strain Lebanon's unity government -- which is led by Hariri's son, Saad, as prime minister and includes Hizballah ministers.

Hariri's son initially also blamed Syria for his father's death. He has since repaired relations with Damascus and has made four trips to the Syrian capital for talks with Assad.

Today's summit marks the first time the Syrian president is visiting Lebanon since the assassination and the subsequent withdrawal from Lebanon of Syrian troops.

Paul Salem, of the Carnegie Middle East Center, says Syria has been gradually rebuilding relations and restoring its influence in Beirut since it was forced to end its nearly three-decade military presence in Lebanon.

"[Syria] certainly has -- through its allies in Lebanon and through rebuilding relations with Saudi Arabia and other players in the region -- regained a lot of influence in Lebanon," Salem said. "It's not the way it was before, but it is certainly significant. It's also interesting that the Syrian president does not come alone to Lebanon in this visit -- he is coming with another major force in the region and in Lebanon, who is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.''

Avoiding Violence?

Indeed, Syria's rapprochement with Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia -- which backs Saad Hariri -- has been well received in Beirut. The improved relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia -- which support rival political players in Lebanon -- helped the young Hariri form the national unity government after defeating the pro-Syrian Shi'ite Hizballah movement and its allies in a 2009 election.

On the streets of Beirut, many Lebanese said the visit by King Abdullah and Assad was a positive sign for their country.

''The phase of internal tension that we are going through makes it necessary for Arab leaders, especially President Assad, to cool things down," Naeem Saleh, a newspaper vender in the Lebanese capital, told Reuters. "As you can see with the international tribunal and dangerous accusations that have arisen, this will lead to a crisis in the country. So the visit is necessary and it is the right time for it.''

Beirut resident Nazih Sleem says this summit is vital if violence is to be prevented.

''The visit is important 100 percent for the interest of Lebanon and the Lebanese people because we are going through a sensitive period and the people here are talking about, God forbid, internal Lebanese conflict or war between Lebanon and Israel," Sleem told the same agency. "Hopefully, with his visit, these fears will be calmed.''

The UN tribunal was set up after a request made by the Lebanese government in December of 2005. Established in 2007 by a UN Security Council resolution, the mandate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is to prosecute persons responsible for the attack that killed Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people.

But the international court's jurisdiction could be extended beyond the February 14, 2005 bombing if the tribunal finds that other attacks in Lebanon during from October 2004 and to December 2005 were connected.

Hizballah leaders have been quoted as saying that today's summit should be decisive in determining the political implications of indictments by the UN court.

based on agency reports