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Hezbollah indictments loom

Lebanese tensions run high as U.N. prepares to pursue justice in Hariri assassination

- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2010

BEIRUT | Lebanon is bracing itself. The U.N.-backed court set up after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is expected to announce indictments of Hezbollah members before the end of the year.

Some Lebanese people say the court will deliver justice and end Lebanon's cycle of political assassinations. Others say the court it is a Western political tool, built solely to target Hezbollah. Many are angry, many are afraid.

"If something happens, if anyone gets indicted, the people are going to get their weapons," Hussein Atwell, a 22-year-old Hezbollah supporter, said at his barbershop in central Beirut.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was set up after the former prime minister was killed by a bomb along with 22 other people in Beirut. In recent months, the court has turned its focus to Hezbollah, sparking a fierce debate inside Lebanon.

Last week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that leaked documents and interviews point "overwhelmingly to the fact that the assassins were from Hezbollah."

The report detailed an investigation of phone records that suggest an eight-member Hezbollah-backed team carried out the assassination. Wissam Eid, the security officer who conducted most of the investigation, was killed by a bomb blast in 2008.

The court responded quickly by issuing a statement that condemned the broadcaster's report, saying it endangered lives.

"It will be for the judges, and the judges alone, to assess the evidence and reach conclusions based on the facts as established at trial, and the law," prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said in the statement.

The report also named Wissam al-Hassan, the head of Lebanon's police intelligence, as a possible suspect. The Lebanese government denies the officer was involved.

"We have full confidence in Internal Security Forces-Information Branch head Col. Wissam al-Hassan," Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader, was quoted as saying in local news reports.

Hezbollah denies any involvement in the assassination and accuses Israel of staging the attack. At a graduation ceremony on Sunday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told graduates and supporters via satellite link that Israel had invaded Lebanese telecommunications. He called on other countries in the region to prevent the indictments, which he said were "a threat to Lebanon's security."

"Those who are speaking about a post-indictment solution, I can tell them that by then, it will be too late and we would all have lost the initiative," he said.

Hezbollah claims that the U.S. and Israel set up the court to discredit the organization. Both countries list the Iranian-Syrian backed Shiite militant group as a terrorist outfit.

But in Lebanon, Hezbollah is a powerful political party, allied with almost half of the parliament, and the country's strongest military force.

Mr. Nasrallah has said he will "cut the hands" of anyone who tries to arrest members and has promised "major political change" if members are indicted.

"Many people fear that the STL is part of these tools that are being used to target Hezbollah politically, rather than really [bringing] up truth," said Alain Aoun, a member of parliament and the March 8 alliance, a political coalition that includes Hezbollah. "I think this will trigger a reaction in Lebanon."

This leaves Prime Minister Saad Hariri in a tight spot. Like the U.S., he supports the tribunal and says it will bring justice for his father. But peaceful ties between Mr. Hariri's March 14 coalition and Hezbollah are essential to stability in Lebanon. In recent weeks, Mr. Hariri has called for dialogue and insisted that the indictments will not lead to violence.

"The Lebanese leaders will not allow the eruption of a conflagration that threatens Lebanon," Mr. Hariri told Russian reporters, according to Lebanese newspaper, the Daily Star.

Many Lebanese people fear that if Hezbollah members are indicted, the country could erupt in riots or sectarian battles. Fares Souaid, secretary general of the March 14 alliance, said Hezbollah's backers - Iran and Syria - are under a huge amount of international pressure to prevent regional violence. But, he said, this will not necessarily prevent fighting in Lebanon's streets.

Hezbollah "is going to make a kind of coup d'etat," he said, "a kind of local instability."

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