- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

BEIRUT, Lebanon.

As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon begins hearings in The Hague in the politically charged investigation into the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri four years ago, a climate of fear has gripped Lebanon.

You know the mood is tense in Beirut when the person picking you up at the airport offers to get you a gun. “For your own security, sir,” he says.

The day I arrived in the Lebanese capital, a pilot for Middle East Airlines was murdered on the airport road on his way to work. Just one week earlier, the information technology manager for that airline, the national carrier, was abducted at the airport itself. “A professional job, that left no traces,” a former Lebanese intelligence officer told me.

Dark rumors circulate about these events. Sources close to Hezbollah made it known they suspected one of the men of being an Israeli spy. As if to substantiate these claims, Hezbollah handed over a car dealer to the security forces the day after the IT manager disappeared, claiming he had installed satellite tracking devices in cars sold to Hezbollah in south Lebanon over several years.

Others believe the men were killed because they had important information about the Hariri assassination that neither the Syrians nor Hezbollah wanted exposed.

Four Lebanese generals have been arrested as suspects in the Hariri murder case. Special prosecutor Daniel Bellemarre left Beirut last Wednesday after receiving assurances from the Lebanese government it would transfer the suspects to The Hague for trial, where they were be interrogated by a panel of international jurists and four Lebanese judges.

The Lebanese judges are so fearful for their lives that even their names were kept secret until after they had left the country. An attempt by this reporter to meet one through a trusted contact failed, because the judge feared for his life.

In a report to the United Nations secretary general in October 2005, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis accused Syria and Lebanese intelligence officers of plotting the assassination. Mr. Mehlis soon resigned, apparently after receiving death threats. But his initial work led to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1757, adopted on May 30, 2007, that established the international tribunal, and the arrest by the Lebanese authorities of the four generals.

Imagine for an instant the reaction of ordinary Americans if the Justice Department announced it was arresting the head of the CIA, the director of national intelligence, and the directors of the FBI and the Secret Service, on charges of having plotted the assassination of the speaker of the House of Representatives. And imagine the disbelief most people would have felt if the president said he knew nothing about the plot.

That’s what happened in Lebanon. The four generals were Jamil Sayid, head of general security; Raymond Azar, director of military intelligence; Ali al-Hajj, head of the Internal Security Forces; and Mustapha Hamdan, chief of presidential security. Two are Sunni Muslims, one is a Shia, and the fourth a Maronite Christian.

Shortly before he was taken into custody, Gen. Sayid made a public plea to then President Emile Lahoud to defend his generals or go down with them.

Mr. Lahoud feigned ignorance, and left office last year. But Mr. Lahoud was known as a “micro-manager” of the intelligence services, the former intelligence officer told me. “None of them could have done anything without him. He should have been arrested.”

For Roger Edde, a prominent Lebanese businessman and Maronite Christian politician, the latest killings are just the calm before the storm as Syria and its Iranian-backed ally, Hezbollah, gird for war.

“We are in the worst terrorism situation ever,” he told me. “The president is threatened, the prime minister is threatened, leading members of Parliament who defend Lebanon’s sovereignty are threatened. Hezbollah controls the airport, the seaport, and the security apparatus. They are trying to control the country the way the Nazis did, through a fake democratic process that conceals a coup d’etat.”

Though forced by the United Nations to withdraw their troops from Lebanon two months after the Hariri assassination, the Syrians continue to dominate the country through thousands of intelligence agents and informers operating at every level of Lebanese society, from the security services right down to street vendors. Whenever they feel that someone has stepped over the line, they never hesitate to strike.

Pierre Gemayel, a government minister and son of former President Amin Gemayel, stepped over that line. He was gunned down in broad daylight on Nov. 21, 2006, when an unknown car pulled alongside of him on the Jdeideh highway.

Though Internal Security Officers were stationed in the immediate vicinity, they never sent a car to investigate after the machine-gun burst was fired. “The killers didn’t even worry about traffic,” a former Lebanese intelligence officer told me. Beirut is notorious for its traffic even in wartime.

Gibran Tueni, a staunchly anti-Syrian member of parliament and newspaper publisher, also stepped over that line. He was killed by a car-bomb just two days after returning to Beirut in December 2005, after several months overseas.

“The bomb was just waiting for him, when he was visiting friends. They knew exactly where he was,” the former intelligence officer said. “This is worse than open occupation by a foreign army. The Syrians have agents everywhere, at all moments, on every street.”

Maj. Wissam Eido, a signals intelligence officer in the Internal Security Forces, never stepped over the line publicly. But once the Syrians learned he was examining phone records of suspects implicated in the Hariri assassination last year, they sent a car-bomb that killed him during rush hour traffic a year ago at the Chevrolet traffic circle in Furn el-Chabak.

Almost everyone I met warned me about using my cell phone. It was common knowledge that Hezbollah officers in the security forces were regularly intercepting phone calls and tracking their human targets by triangulating the signals the phones send out to cell phone towers around the city.

“Since Maj. Eido’s murder, no one in the intelligence services would even dare to investigate anything connected to the Hariri assassination,” the former intelligence officer told me. “By killing him, the Syrians have paralyzed the security services.”

The real fear among many Lebanese today is that Syria and Iran have so infiltrated their country that no one is safe, especially if they open their mouths to denounce the foreign threats to Lebanon’s sovereignty.

They also fear that the Syrians so thoroughly control the security apparatus in Lebanon that the hard evidence of the Hariri assassination is being erased before it comes to light.

. Take the cell phone vendor in the northern city of Tripoli who supplied SIM cards to the surveillance teams used by the assassins. Shortly after investigators discovered his identity, he died mysteriously in a car crash in the mountains.

When the media revealed that the driver of the vehicle used in the car-bombing came from a Christian village in Syria, security officials purged the officer who had recruited him. “The threads of the investigation have been cut,” a source involved in the investigation told me.

Saad Hariri, son of the slain prime minister and leader of the March 14 coalition, has never hidden his own beliefs as to who was behind his father’s murder.

”I have no doubt that the Syrian regime is after all of us: They killed my father, Gibran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, Walid Eido, and Antoine Ghanem,” he told FoxNews shortly after Mr. Ghanem - another anti-Syrian member of parliament - was killed on Sept 19, 2007. “They will kill as many members of parliament of the majority who represent the Cedars Revolution as possible. This is their way. They have never stopped. They will never stop,” he said.

Also driving the killings is an effort by Syria and Iran to intimidate Lebanese voters as they prepare for national elections in June, political insiders said.

“The Iranians and the Syrians will never allow elections to be held if they don’t know the results in advance,” a well-informed European observer told me.

Toni Nissi, secretary general of the National Council of the Cedars Revolution, an independent political group that emerged after the Hariri assassination, told me Hezbollah has been buying apartment and office buildings at key crossroads commanding entry to the Christian zones north of Beirut. Hezbollah is prepared to “pull the trigger” if it loses the June elections.

”Hezbollah is prepared to pull off another May 7,” he said. Last May’s massive demonstration by Hezbollah supporters paralyzed downtown Beirut, brought down the government and forced the ruling coalition to make major concessions to Hezbollah and its allies at a shotgun political wedding in Doha, Qatar. “This time, they have stockpiled weapons and built fortified bunkers for their fighters, so they can take over the whole Christian area in just ten minutes,” Mr. Nissi said.

These are not just dark rumblings of opposition politicians. Virtually every day, Prime Minister Fuad Seniora and other senior government figures speculate on whether they will be able to hold the elections on schedule and debate whether Lebanon’s own investigation of the Hariri murder will ever be heard in open court.

A great chill has descended upon Lebanon’s experiment in freedom. Without quick international help, and vigorous support from Washington, Lebanon’s democrats soon will be forced into hibernation.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a contributing editor for Newsmax Media, and has been reporting from Lebanon since 1982. His latest book is “Shadow Warriors: Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender” (Crown Forum, 2007).

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