- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

NEW YORK — President Bush called on the United Nations yesterday to convene a session on a report naming relatives of Syria President Bashar Assad as suspects in the assassination of former Lebanon Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“The report strongly suggests that the politically motivated assassination could not have taken place without Syrian involvement,” Mr. Bush said after helping dedicate a new pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Southern California.

The U.N.-led investigation implicated senior members of the Syrian security services, including Mr. Assad’s brother and brother-in-law, in the Feb. 14 car bombing that killed Mr. Hariri and nearly two dozen other people.

Mr. Bush said he had telephoned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier in the day and instructed her to call on the United Nations to convene a session “as quickly as possible to deal with this very serious matter.”

In Alabama with British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, Miss Rice called the report “deeply troubling.”

“You have clearly a case in which there is an implication that Syrian officials were involved in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. You also have a clear indication that the Syrian government has not been cooperating,” she said.

Mr. Straw called the Hariri assassination “an unpleasant story which the international community will take very seriously indeed.”

The United States, France and Britain are likely to push for a Security Council resolution demanding more transparency from Damascus after meeting with the chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis, on Tuesday.

In his 53-page report, released here Thursday, Mr. Mehlis noted that Syrian officials had tried to mislead investigators.

Faisal Miqdad, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, yesterday rejected the report as “politicized” and said that officials had cooperated fully with Mr. Mehlis’ teams.

“My view of the report is that it is not credible,” he said yesterday.

The text also touched off a controversy within the United Nations, with accusations that the secretary-general’s office had pressured Mr. Mehlis to redact the names of Syrian officials suspected of participating in the plot to kill Mr. Hariri.

The organization released an electronic version of the report in a format that allows users to track changes by name and time. The document showed the changes to the report were made at the same time Mr. Mehlis was meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his office

Mr. Mehlis said that he removed some of the names when he realized that the report was to be made public, because of the presumption of innocence. He rejected any notion that he was pressured by the United Nations or Syria to make the report less specific.

“No one outside my team played any role in the drafting or preparation of the report,” he said during a press conference yesterday morning.

The investigation named President Assad’s brother, Maher Assad, Syria’s security chief, as well as his brother-in-law, Asef Shaukat, who runs military intelligence. Several other members of the Syrian and Lebanese security apparatus were also named as planning or approving the Hariri slaying.

Mr. Hariri, a wealthy real estate magnate with close ties to Washington and Saudi Arabia, resigned as prime minister in late 2003, protesting Syria’s control of Lebanese politics, defense and other internal issues.

Although divisive in life, his death unified the Lebanese people against Syrian meddling, touching off months of popular protests and crippling Beirut’s credibility.

The assassination also galvanized international opposition to the Syrian occupation, which began during Lebanon’s bloody civil war, and ended only with a U.N. Security Council resolution this past spring.

There are a range of options, including political pressure on Damascus and narrowly drawn sanctions on government officials.

Diplomats said that Washington, Paris and London will almost certainly press for greater Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis commission, and might consider carefully targeted sanctions — such as a travel ban on officials named in the report — to exert pressure.

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