x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Hizbollah to be implicated in Hariri assassination

The disclosure that the party is likely to be implicated in the death of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri could send Lebanon sliding back to chaos.

Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah's disclosure that his party is likely to be implicated in the assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri could send Lebanon sliding back to chaos, analysts warn. "This new situation is very alarming," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre. "Hizbollah is in a very worrisome position and the tribunal is just one symptom of this position," Mr Salem said in reference to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a UN-backed court tasked with finding and trying Mr Hariri's killers. "If there is movement towards peace in the region, then Hizbollah has a problem," he added. "If there's movement toward war, Hizbollah has a problem. And now if the tribunal moves forward, they will also have a problem." Oussama Safa, who heads the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, estimates Lebanon has a "50-50 chance" of descending into yet another round of violence in the light of Mr Nasrallah's surprise announcement late yesterday. In a rare press conference, the Shiite leader said prime minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain ex-premier, had informed him months ago that Hizbollah members would be accused by the STL. He said Mr Hariri had also assured him that he would publicly avow that it was "undisciplined" Hizbollah members, and not the party itself, who were implicated. "The country could go towards a confrontation and it could also go towards a way to contain this -- certainly not by stopping the indictment," Mr Safa said. "But I think all parties have an interest in containing this." Politicians and judges, including STL president Antonio Cassese, have said they expect an indictment by the end of the year, sparking fears of a repeat of the violence in May 2008 that brought Lebanon close to a new civil war. More than 100 people were killed that month when Hizbollah staged a spectacular takeover of west Beirut following a crackdown on the party. Omar Nashabe, a specialist in criminal justice and columnist with Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, said Mr Nasrallah's speech yesterday was a well-timed wake-up call. "He is calling for a revision ... by the group that chose the wrong path by accusing Syria, and now that same group is moving toward Syria," Mr Nashabe said, referring to Hariri's Western and Saudi-backed alliance. "They should think carefully if they want to accuse Hizbollah to avoid repeating the same mistake as with Syria," he added. Mr Hariri had initially accused Syria of the February 2005 Beirut bombing that killed his father and 22 others, forcing the pullout of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence. But his relations with Damascus, which has consistently denied involvement in the murder, have warmed and he has visited Syria four times in the past eight months. "At a time when Hizbollah feels under attack and Nasrallah is making these statements, Hariri is in Syria meeting and making agreements and I think Hizbollah is wondering where Syria is going," Mr Salem said. Mr Safa believes the new-found rapprochement bodes well for stability in Lebanon. "I think the better Hariri's relationship with Syria gets, the more detente we will see and the more we are able to keep a lid on any violent reaction," he said. Political blogger Elias Muhanna for his part says the commotion surrounding the UN tribunal's finding could well be a ploy to defuse tension. "By the time that the STL gets around to indicting Hizbollah members a few months from now... the development will be old news, already dissected, analysed and picked over by Beirut's punditocracy," Mr Muhanna wrote on his blog Qifa Nabki. "No one will be surprised and [if Mr Nasrallah and others get their way], no one will really care." * AFP