Lebanon PM says it was a mistake to accuse Syria in his father’s 2005 killing

By Bassem Mroue, AP
Monday, September 6, 2010

Lebanon PM: accusations against Syria were mistake

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s prime minister said he was wrong to accuse Syria of involvement in the 2005 assassination of his father, a major turnaround for a politician who has long blamed Damascus for the Beirut truck bombing that killed Rafik Hariri and 22 others.

In an interview published Monday, Saad Hariri said the accusation was politically motivated.

“This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has ended,” he told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. Hariri’s office in Beirut had no comment on the report.

Hariri’s comments come at a time when he and his Western-backed political bloc are struggling to maintain momentum as Syria’s allies in Lebanon — the Shiite militant group Hezbollah — gain influence.

Since December, the prime minister has made five trips to Syria and both sides have urged reconciliation.

Syria continues to wield influence in Lebanon through its backing of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has a large role in Lebanon’s fragile national unity government. In just a few years, Hezbollah has gained so much political strength it now has a virtual veto power over government decisions.

The late Hariri, a billionaire businessman credited with rebuilding Lebanon after its 15-year civil war ended in 1990, had been trying to limit Syria’s domination of Lebanon in the months before his assassination.

The death of Hariri, a former prime minister, sparked massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, dubbed the Cedar Revolution, which led to Syria’s withdrawal of its army after nearly 30 years of military and political domination of its tiny neighbor.

Damascus has consistently denied any involvement in the assassination.

The Cedar Revolution gave rise to the U.S.- and Saudi-backed coalition known as March 14, named for a day of massive anti-Syrian protests in 2005.

Nabil Bou Monsef of Beirut’s leading An-Nahar daily said Hariri’s comments are a clear sign that relations between Hariri and Syria are “advancing in a major way.”

“Hariri is turning a major page by ending the accusation against Syria,” he said, adding that it remains to be seen how the March 14 alliance will respond.

The Hariri assassination also deepened a rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which each backed rival sides in the ensuing power struggle that nearly tore Lebanon apart: Syria backing a Hezbollah-led coalition, and Saudi Arabia and the United States supporting Saad Hariri’s Sunni-led coalition.

In the months after the death of his father, Hariri accused Damascus of direct responsibility for a series of bombings that killed Hariri and several anti-Syrian officials and journalists in 2005.

“The Syrian army withdrew, but they left behind their intelligence agents, and they are killing us,” Hariri said at the time.

A Netherlands-based U.N. tribunal has been set up to try those responsible for Hariri’s killing.

The first U.N. investigator into the killing, Germany’s Detlev Mehlis, said the assassination plot’s complexity suggested a role by the Syrian intelligence services and its pro-Syria Lebanese counterpart.

But the two chief investigators who followed Mehlis have worked quietly and have not named any individuals or countries as suspects.

In July, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that he expected the tribunal to indict members of his movement. But he dismissed the allegations and said the tribunal has no credibility.

Many people fear indictments of Hezbollah members could spark clashes between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites, or that Hezbollah’s nemesis Israel could be pulled into a conflict, causing wider turmoil.

Later in July, the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia made an unprecedented show of cooperation by traveling together to Lebanon in hopes of preventing any violence if Hezbollah members are indicted.

It was Syrian President Bashar Assad’s first visit to Lebanon since Hariri’s assassination in 2005.

In Monday’s interview, Hariri said it was important to allow the tribunal to do its work.

In a rare reference to “false witnesses” accused of misleading the investigation, Hariri said: “There are people who misled the investigation and caused harm to Lebanon and Syria … Those witnesses damaged relations between the two countries and politicized the accusation.”

Hezbollah and its allies have been demanding that several witnesses be put on trial for telling international investigators that Syria and Hezbollah were involved in the 2005 killing.

Some of those witnesses have since recanted their allegations.

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