- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

From combined dispatches

Former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, a one-time stalwart of the ruling Ba’ath Party, said yesterday that President Bashar Assad personally threatened Rafik Hariri months before Mr. Hariri was assassinated.

“I will destroy anyone who tries to hinder our decisions,” Mr. Assad told Mr. Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, during a meeting in Damascus, Mr. Khaddam said.

Mr. Khaddam said the meeting took place a few months before the Feb. 14 assassination of Mr. Hariri in a Beirut bomb blast for which a United Nations probe has implicated Syrian intelligence.

Mr. Khaddam made the claim in an interview from Paris with Al Arabiya satellite television. He also declared a formal break with Mr. Assad.

The Syrian intelligence services could not have carried out such an operation without Mr. Assad being informed, he said, when asked if the head of state could have been unaware.

After the warning from Mr. Assad, Mr. Hariri left with “high blood pressure and his nose bleeding,” Mr. Khaddam said.

Mr. Khaddam, however, said he was not accusing Syria of complicity in Mr. Hariri’s assassination in a massive truck bombing that killed 20 others on a Beirut street.

He said uncovering the guilty parties was a matter for the U.N. commission investigating the murder.

Mr. Khaddam became a Syrian vice president in 1984 and resigned in June. He was the nominal leader in Syria for a short period after Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, died in June 2000.

In the interview, Mr. Khaddam was bitterly critical of the current Assad government, saying the ruling Ba’ath Party and other popular organizations had been reduced to vindicating “decisions made by the president.”

He claimed to have left his homeland on good terms with Mr. Assad. “There are differences in opinions, but there was mutual respect,” he said, adding that his family was with him in Paris, where he was writing a memoir.

Mr. Khaddam said he had advised Mr. Hariri “to leave Lebanon because his situation regarding Syria had become complicated” in the wake of the threat. “But, of course, at no time did it occur to me that Syria could assassinate Hariri.”

In late March, Syria denied a report from a U.N. fact-finding mission that Mr. Assad had threatened both Mr. Hariri and Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt if they opposed the policies of Damascus, the former power broker in their country.

In an interview with CNN in October, Mr. Assad rejected any notion he had played a personal role in the assassination.

“This is against our principles and my principle. I would never do such a thing in my life. What do we achieve? … We wouldn’t do it, it’s against our interests and against my principles. I would never do it. It is impossible.”

Under intense international pressure and after massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Damascus, Syria pulled its troops out of Syria this summer after entering the country in 1976 as a stabilizing force early in the country’s civil war.

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