- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

NEW YORK - The United Nations yesterday signed an agreement with the Lebanese government to establish a tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the first step in a legal process that could yet be derailed by sectarian politics.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora this week formally agreed to create the international court, but under Lebanese law it must also be ratified by Parliament.

Although a majority of parliamentarians appear to support the tribunal, Shi’ite Speaker of the House Nabi Berri has declared he will not convene Parliament for a vote. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Christian, also rejected the tribunal in a letter received by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week.

Syrian agents are thought to have assassinated Mr. Hariri and nearly two dozen others two yearsago, and their prosecution by the proposed tribunal is vehemently opposed by Shi’ite political figures who are loyal to Damascus.

Four Shi’ite Cabinet ministers resigned in November, when Mr. Siniora, whose unpopular government is considered by many Lebanese to be too weak and too close to the West, called for a meeting to endorse the tribunal.

Lebanon may be on the edge of a new civil war, as Shi’ites, sympathetic Sunnis and Christians have massed in downtown Beirut, calling for the dissolution of the Siniora government.

U.N. officials appear wary of overselling yesterday’s agreement, noting that political tensions could delay the court’s work.

“This tribunal is meant above all for Lebanon to be able find its path to justice and peace,” a senior U.N. official said yesterday.

The statute signed by the United Nations and Mr. Siniora calls for the creation of a tribunal of “international character” with foreign and Lebanese judges sitting in a yet-undecided location to prosecute those accused of participating in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Mr. Hariri and 22 others.

Under the Lebanese Constitution, Parliament must ratify the statute and send it to the president, who has 14 days to sign it. If he refuses to approve the bill, the Cabinet can overrule him with a two-thirds majority.

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