A bombshell revelation tying Lebanon's militant Hezbollah to the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister has generated a rare consensus among rival political camps less than two weeks before crucial parliamentary elections.
The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported this weekend that the Netherlands-based international tribunal established to trace and judge the killers of Rafik Hariri has uncovered evidence that Hezbollah was responsible for the February 2005 truck bomb assassination.
Hezbollah described the allegations as "evil fabrications" aimed at "influencing the election campaign" and called on the international tribunal to refute the allegations.
A spokeswoman for the tribunal refused to discuss Der Spiegel's claims, saying, "We don't know where they are getting the story from. The office of the prosecutor doesn't comment on any issues related to operational aspects of the investigation."
The revelations, coming just two weeks before Lebanon holds closely contested parliamentary elections, have the potential to ignite simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions here. On Sunday night, a Shiite supporter of the Hezbollah-led opposition was killed during a clash with partisans of the Western-backed March 14 coalition.
Calculated leak against Hezbollah?
The opposition is expected to win marginally more seats than its March 14 competitor, allowing it to form the backbone of the next government.
The timing of Der Spiegel's report has sparked speculation that it was a calculated leak to put Hezbollah on the defensive just as the Shiite group was hoping that an electoral victory would earn it some respite from international and domestic pressure to dismantle its military wing.
It will also sustain anti-Hezbollah sentiment within the March 14 alliance, especially among Lebanese Sunnis who are still smarting from their drubbing at the hands of Hezbollah's fighters during street clashes in Beirut a year ago.
"My main worry is that March 14 will use the story against Hezbollah and that would be tantamount to a declaration of war and will be a disaster for Lebanon," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah.
However, March 14 leaders seem determined to ignore the story.
Walid Jumblatt, chieftain of the Druze faction of the coalition, compared Der Spiegel's revelations to the April 1975 shooting of bus passengers in the Beirut suburb of Ain Rummaneh that triggered a 16-year civil war here.
"Beware of rumors and press leaks, they could damage the work of justice and provoke discord and sedition," said Mr. Jumblatt, formerly an arch-critic of Hezbollah who lately has softened his tone.
Hani Hammoud, a spokesman for Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son and political heir, also played down the story.
"We do not comment on any information regarding the tribunal unless it is officially stated by the tribunal," he said.
Spiegel details gripping, but analysis questionable
Der Spiegel claimed that Lebanese investigators had traced cellphone communications during the period just before Hariri's death to pinpoint an initial group of eight suspects. A "second circle of hell" of some 20 cell phones was subsequently identified that were used in close proximity to the first eight phones. The cell-phone numbers of the second group were all traced to Hezbollah militants, with the alleged mastermind named as Hajj Salim, the alleged head of Hezbollah's "special operations unit."
Der Spiegel's revelations – attributed to an unnamed source or sources "close to the tribunal" and internal documents – make for sensational reading, but the plot falters when it comes to Hezbollah's motive in wanting Hariri dead. The magazine concludes that "Hariri's growing popularity" was a "thorn in the side" of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Shiite Hezbollah, which led to the decision to kill the Sunni billionaire.
Dr. Saad-Ghorayeb dismisses the claimed motive as "laughable," noting that Nasrallah's influence in Lebanon and the Middle East was greater than that of Hariri.
If Der Spiegel's allegations have a basis in fact, analysts suggest a more plausible scenario is one in which elements within Hezbollah assisted in the assassination at the behest of a third party rather than orchestrating the murder itself.
Late-night chats between Hariri, Nasrallah
In the months before his death, Hariri's relationship with the Syrian regime, which then dominated Lebanon, steadily worsened. During the same period, however, Hariri struck up a personal friendship with Nasrallah, helping ease tensions over their long-standing differences between their political visions for Lebanon.
The two men met about once a week late at night for secret sessions in which they discussed Lebanese and regional affairs while snacking on fruit and sipping cups of Turkish coffee. They had much in common. Both men originated from south Lebanon and shared a liking for jokes and good humor. Their influence extended well beyond the parochial confines of Lebanon, unlike most Lebanese politicians.
In January 2005, just one month before he was killed, Hariri persuaded Jacques Chirac, the then-president of France and a close friend, not to support the inclusion of Hezbollah on the European Union's list of terrorist organizations.
Nasrallah reciprocated the gesture by telling Hariri at their last meeting on Feb. 11 that he would send a delegate to Damascus to try and attempt a reconciliation between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the former premier. The delegate apparently was in Damascus on Feb. 14, the same day that Hariri died.
Conducting assassination alone nearly impossible
Granted, the fact that Hariri and Nasrallah shared cups of coffee and a joke each week does not suggest that Hezbollah remains blameless in Hariri's death. Yet most Hezbollah observers believe Nasrallah recognized that Hariri preferred compromise over confrontation and therefore was a potential asset rather than a threat. In Lebanon, only Hariri had sufficient influence to persuade the international community not to pursue Hezbollah's disarmament too diligently but leave it up to the Lebanese to resolve.
More pertinent, even if Hezbollah did have a compelling motive for wanting Hariri dead, analysts believe it would be almost impossible for the Shiite organization to embark upon an such a bold assassination unilaterally.
The impact of such an event was bound to have serious consequences for its benefactors in Iran and Syria – as demonstrated by the domestic and international outcry following Hariri's murder, which forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon two months later.
•Click here to read Der Spiegel's report.