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Lebanon tribunal on Hariri assassination set to issue first indictments

An international tribunal investigating the 2005 Hariri assassination in Lebanon will focus on Hezbollah in its first indictments this month. But it still sees Syria as playing a key role.

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Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, told Lebanon's Al Balad newspaper on Dec. 1, that, "We are not discussing the issue of an indictment, but rather a conspiratorial step against Hezbollah. We cannot deal with the matter naively as some are attempting."

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Hezbollah pressuring PM Hariri

Residents of Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut say that the atmosphere is tense. "The expectations are very bad. Hezbollah people are holding meetings constantly. It's no secret that they have prepared many plans to deal with the indictments," said one resident.

Hezbollah has steadily increased pressure on Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik, to formally declare the tribunal as "politicized" and to cease all cooperation with it.

The tribunal includes Lebanese judges, is conducted under Lebanese law, and the Lebanese government pays 49 percent of the costs, the rest coming from international contributions. But even if Lebanon stops supporting the tribunal, the UN Security Council has the option of continuing the judicial process.

So far, however, Prime Minister Hariri has shown no sign of reversing Lebanon's course on the tribunal.

Regional players look for a solution

In an attempt to head off a potential political deadlock and possible violence as a result of the indictments, some of the key regional players in Lebanon – Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey – are attempting to find a solution to preserve stability.

"It is very clear that Lebanon is on the agenda of regional powers … based on the formation of a regional conflict management mechanism. I think the energy of all these five or six states will probably lead to something," says Ousama Safa, an independent Lebanese political consultant.

Details of the possible compromise are scarce, although some Arab diplomats and Lebanese politicians recently have expressed optimism.

"The situation is heading toward a major breakthrough, and we will see the Lebanese closing ranks," Ali Awadh Assiri, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, told Lebanon's NBN television last week.

Potential options include delaying indictments or having Hariri publicly absolve Hezbollah of blame for his father's assassination and blame it instead on a few "rogue" members of the party. Still, it is unclear whether any of the proposals under consideration can simultaneously satisfy the demands of both sides.

Syria not off the hook

While initial indictments are expected to focus on Hezbollah, diplomats say that the tribunal has not absolved Syria of culpability. On the contrary, they say the working assumption of the investigators remains that Syria played a lead role in the Hariri assassination even if hard evidence has been slow to materialize.

Although Hezbollah probably has the capacity to carry out an assassination of such magnitude, the party had little motive to want the elder Hariri dead.

Furthermore, some analysts say that Hezbollah was not in a position to independently assassinate someone of his stature except under the instructions of its Iranian and Syrian backers. The diplomatic sources say they expect the focus of the investigation to return to Syria once the Hezbollah lead has been exhausted.

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