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Rafik Hariri murder probe hinders progress on Lebanon-Syria ties

The Hariri murder probe is getting closer to issuing indictments, straining ties between Lebanon and Syria and complicating US goals in the region.

By Correspondent / November 4, 2010

A billboard poster of assassinated Lebanese former prime minister Rafik al- Hariri and his son Prime Minister Saad al- Hariri (l.) is seen next to another one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the port-city of Sidon in south Lebanon on Oct. 10.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters/File



A five-year murder probe into the killing of Rafik Hariri by an international tribunal is complicating a Lebanese push to build a new, more amicable relationship with Syria, its powerful larger neighbor.

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Since taking office a year ago, Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, has reached out to Syria in an attempt to mend several years of strained relations between the two countries following the assassination of his father, Rafik, a former premier, in a truck bomb blast in February 2005.

“Today, I am the prime minister of Lebanon and we wanted to open a new page with Syria and we have entered a new era of relations with Syria, on a state-to-state level,” said Saad Hariri.

Hariri’s overtures toward Syria in recent months include several meetings with President Bashar al-Assad and a number of statements absolving the Syrian leadership of responsibility for his father’s death. But his efforts at rapprochement have met with mixed signals from Syria. Several bilateral agreements have been signed and Mr. Assad last week told the Arabic Al-Hayat daily that he had “no problem” with Hariri and that the doors of Damascus were always open to the Lebanese premier.

But a Syrian court recently issued indictments against 33 of Hariri’s political allies and advisers and Lebanon’s top police chief. Mohammed Naji al-Otari, the Syrian prime minister, recently described the political coalition to which Hariri belongs as made from “cardboard," a comment that drew angry reactions in Lebanon.

The United States has repeatedly accused Syria of transferring advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a claim that Damascus denies.

Indictments coming?

Overshadowing efforts to forge a new bilateral relationship is the ongoing investigation into the Hariri murder, which could see the issuing of the first indictments by a United Nations-mandated tribunal before the end of the year.

Syria, which dominated Lebanon politically at the time of the assassination, was widely blamed for Hariri’s murder. Syria has always denied the charge. Speculation shifted dramatically last year, however, amid reports that the investigation was focusing on members of the militant Shiite Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus.

Hezbollah’s leadership has denied any involvement in Hariri’s murder. In recent months, the group has mounted a campaign to discredit the tribunal, which it says is serving US and Israeli interests.

Last week, a group of women mobbed two tribunal investigators who allegedly were seeking telephone records in a gynecology clinic in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declared the presence of the investigators an insult and demanded a boycott of the tribunal.