Murder probe imperils Lebanon

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TEL AVIV -- Lebanon celebrated its 62nd birthday as an independent country Monday amid growing fears for its internal stability and political future.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/11/2010 (4396 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TEL AVIV — Lebanon celebrated its 62nd birthday as an independent country Monday amid growing fears for its internal stability and political future.

Since the 1975 civil war, the Land of the Cedars has become a playground for local and foreign powers who strived to influence its policies. Israel, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and France have all sought to exploit Lebanon’s weakness and ethnic divisions in an effort to enhance their regional and international interests.

No event, however, endangers Lebanon’s political future as much as the possible indictment of Hezbollah for assassinating former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. According to his UN mandate, the chief prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Canadian judge Daniel Bellmare, is due to submit a progress report on his work next month.

Nevertheless, it’s still unclear whether the evidence gathered so far is sufficient to convict Hezbollah. In such a case, Bellmare’s investigation will continue until it’s certain that the evidence can be corroborated.

In advance of his anticipated report, Bellmare conducted an exercise last month at a military base near Bordeaux, France, where Hariri’s assassination was re-enacted. The site of the exercise was sealed and a total press blackout imposed.

Prosecution witnesses included Lebanese, Americans, French, Egyptians and experts in cellular technologies. All fingered Hezbollah, with Syria’s role remaining unclear. The main culprits in Bellmare’s exercise were Imad Mughniyeh, the former chief of Hezbollah’s external operations, who was killed in Damascus by a time-bomb more than two years ago. The exercise also fingered Imad Badr el-Din, Mughniyah’s brother-in-law and Hezbollah’s current operations chief.

Anticipating such an indictment, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly warned to “cut the hands” off those who co-operate with the international tribunal. Nasrallah also threatened to “burn Beirut” and take control of all Lebanon.

In view of the fact the Hezbollah militia is stronger than the Lebanese army, Nasrallah’s threats can not be dismissed.

In anticipation of such possible developments, the U.S. had recently assembled in Madrid a group of senior intelligence officers and anti-terrorism experts from France, Lebanon, Israel and an Arab country whose identity is secret. The CIA station chief in Lebanon told the gathering that Nasrallah’s threats should be taken very seriously and that the small and ill-equipped Lebanese army is no match for Hezbollah’s militia.

Both he and a French senior official were adamant that Hezbollah’s main target is to take control of Lebanon and, for now, to keep the Israeli-Lebanese border quiet.

Because of these gloomy evaluations, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is pinning his hopes on Syria and Saudi Arabia and also on Turkey and Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to arrive Wednesday for a two-day visit to Lebanon. Hariri himself is expected to pay a two-day visit to Tehran on Saturday. This is a first visit of Hariri to Iran and it follows the provocative visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hezbollah-controlled Shiite villages in south Lebanon near the Israeli border.

As to Syria, President Bashar Assad, having regained his political influence in Lebanon, is now trying to become the kingmaker in Beirut in co-operation with Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Abdullah, however, left Sunday for medical treatments in the U.S. and it’s unclear when he will return to Riyadh.

In such a complex situation, how could the U.S. react to the many dangers facing Lebanon? After many months of hesitation, Washington has finally decided to unfreeze the $100-million grant to the Lebanese army. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the massive Iranian-Syrian aid to Hezbollah. In an interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that “Syria had failed to meet Washington’s expectations” after Obama hoped to “engage” with Damascus.

This statement could be a good start for a serious reassessment of U.S. policies in the Middle East. Judging by the recent “handover” of Iraq to Iran, however, such a reassessment is not very promising.

Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent, based in Tel Aviv.

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