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Lebanon braces for report on assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri

Reports that a U.N. tribunal will blame the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have triggered fears of violence in this small, unstable country.

Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said late Thursday that Saad Hariri, the current prime minister and son of the slain Sunni politician, had told him that United Nations investigators examining the assassination would pin responsibility on “undisciplined members” of Hezbollah.

Nasrallah said the group, which is backed by Iran and Syria, “categorically” rejected the accusations as a Western and Israeli conspiracy.

“There is now a new scheme targeting the resistance,” he said, referring to Hezbollah’s armed opposition to Israel, this time “targeting it directly, through the tribunal, and through exploiting a just and emotional case that all Lebanese agree on.”

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Many Lebanese fear that any effort to blame Hezbollah for the killing could spark street clashes between Shiite and Sunni Muslims or even bring about a repeat of a brief May 2008 armed conflict that Hezbollah supporters have referred to in speeches over the last week.

“The main Lebanese actors don’t want to make anything of this because they know it will blow up in their face,” said Paul Salem, a Beirut-based Middle East analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They know if they make any move, there will be another May 2008.”

The assassination of the elder Hariri, who was Lebanon’s richest man as well as a conduit for Saudi Arabian influence in the country, set the stage for the forced Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon and the emergence of a Western-backed political bloc of Sunnis, Christians and Druze opposed to Hezbollah.

After the May 2008 conflict, in which dozens were killed, the country’s main players reached a power-sharing agreement that let Hezbollah keep its arms and private telecommunications network. The tentative and relatively peaceful status quo has led to a flowering of commercial and civic life that analysts say could be squelched by the tribunal’s ruling.

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The office of Daniel Bellemare, the Canadian prosecutor heading the U.N. investigation, has been tight lipped about the case. But few believe that rogue Hezbollah operatives would have carried out a hit as ambitious as the one against Hariri without their bosses’ blessing.

“Hezbollah is a structured and hierarchical party,” said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at American University of Beirut. “Nobody would do anything without approval from the top.”

In comments Thursday, Saad Hariri sought to ease worries about potential troubles.

“I know that many of the Lebanese felt scared this week, but I assure them that nothing will happen,” he said, according to comments released by his office. “Discord will not take place because it needs two parties, and I am confident that no one in the country wants discord.”

daragahi@latimes.com


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