- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria - Fresh pressure for an independent probe into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has introduced a new irritant into U.S.-Syria relations on the eve of a breakthrough meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers in Egypt.

The Bush administration, joined by European members of the U.N. Security Council, are pushing for a legally binding U.N. resolution that will create an international tribunal that the Syrian government thinks is rigged against it.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said they expect to meet on the sidelines of an Iraq conference opening today. It would be a delicate meeting under any circumstances, but talk of a legally binding council resolution makes it that much more complicated.

The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the Hariri assassination in February 2005 and has held no substantive talks with Syria since then.

Syrian officials have said the decision whether to convene a tribunal to investigate the killing is solely a Lebanese matter and have reportedly refused to allow Syrians to cooperate with any probe.

The Security Council has delayed action on the proposed tribunal, saying that it would be better if the Lebanese government formally requests it. But Lebanese parties allied with Syria have used parliamentary procedures to block such a request.

Chief U.N. legal adviser Nicolas Michel told the council yesterday that during a recent visit to Beirut, he found the Lebanese political parties stalemated along sectarian lines.

“I can simply say that, for now, from all the discussions that I have, all the efforts that I attempted, I see no progress,” Mr. Michel told reporters in New York yesterday.

He said the Shi’ite minority in Lebanon seemed more concerned about establishing a new government than with approving the tribunal and felt that it was beyond his mandate to discuss internal politics.

The common view in the region is that it will be easier for the Syrian government to dismiss the tribunal if its authority comes only from an “American-dominated” U.N. Security Council than if the tribunal was requested by a united Lebanese government.

“The Security Council is run against the Arab people,” said an engineer who lives in Damascus, and did not want his name used. “Why do they only enforce their own laws when they are against us, and never ?”

Discussions in the Security Council are closely watched in the region; many ordinary citizens are able to refer to specific resolutions by their document numbers.

“If the Americans and the French insist on forcing this 1701 tribunal on us, we will not accept it,” said an English major in a Damascus cafe. “Why should we?”

The tribunal is viewed as a no-win situation for the Syrian government. Several top government officials, including family members of President Bashar Assad, were named early in the investigation as suspects in the car-bomb attack which killed Mr. Hariri and 22 others.

Israel and the United States, among others, have publicly accused Syria of sponsoring the Hariri attack and the killings of a half-dozen other prominent critics of Syria.

Israel also claims to have evidence that Syria is smuggling arms to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

U.N. officials have considered deploying international observers on the border to halt the traffic, but Syria has indicated that it would close the border if that happened.

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