- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

BEIRUT | A U.N.-backed court indicted at least one senior Hezbollah member and three other suspects Thursday in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a killing that transformed this tiny Arab nation and brought down its government earlier this year.

The implication of Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah - the dominant player in Lebanon’s new government - threatens to plunge this tiny Arab nation on Israel’s northern border into a new and violent crisis by opening up sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.

An international tribunal issued the indictments and arrest warrants Thursday without releasing the names of the accused.

But a Lebanese judicial official who saw the warrants read the names to the Associated Press, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

One of the people named is Mustafa Badreddine, thought to have been Hezbollah’s deputy military commander. He is the brother-in-law of the late Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh and is suspected of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait that killed five people.

The other suspects are Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra; and Hassan Anise, who changed his name to Hassan Issa.

Abraham Bryan, an expert on Hezbollah affairs who writes for the leading An-Nahar newspaper, said Mr. Badreddine is the only well-known suspect named in the indictment.

Hezbollah surrounds its military leadership with secrecy,” he said. “Nobody knows the three others. … Are they alive or not? Are these their real names or no?”

The U.N.-backed Hariri tribunal had long been expected to accuse members of Hezbollah - something the Iranian-backed militant group has insisted it will not accept.

Lebanon recently formed a new government that gives Hezbollah unprecedented political power.

There have been lingering fears that tensions over the tribunal could lead to street protests and a new crisis in a country where stability has long been shaky.

Lebanon has a dark history of sectarian conflict and potentially explosive mix of faiths, including Christian, Sunni and Shiite. Each makes up about a third of Lebanon’s population of 4 million.

Hariri was one of Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni leaders, and Sunni supporters have demanded that his killers be held accountable.

Last year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group “will cut off the hand” of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members. It was a potent threat, given that Mr. Nasrallah commands an arsenal that far outweighs that of the national army.

Hezbollah had no immediate comment.