U.N. Questions Syrian Officials on Hariri Slaying

A U.N. investigator has arrived in Damascus to question top Syrian government security and intelligence officers about the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. He was killed in a car bomb attack in Beirut, and Syria is believed to have been behind the slaying.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Under tight security, United Nations investigators arrived in Damascus today. The team was continuing its investigation into the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Public outrage after the killing forced Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon this spring. As the investigation enters its final weeks, critics of Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, say his days in power are numbered. And some wonder if Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is also vulnerable. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON reporting:

In a marble-floored, high-rise apartment in Beirut not far from the Mediterranean, Samar al-Hajj(ph) shows a visitor photos of her family in happier times.

Ms. SAMAR AL-HAJJ: My friend.

Unidentified Man: When was this taken...

KENYON: On August 29th, Samar fell asleep next to her husband Ali al-Hajj, the former director of Lebanese internal security. When her husband shook her awake at 5:30 the next morning, she had no idea the men waiting downstairs were about to turn her world upside-down.

Ms. AL-HAJJ: I said, `Don't joke with--let me sleep.' He say, `Samar, please, they are here.' I don't believe what I'm seeing and--a lot of people with arms, and they look at me like criminal. They ask Ali to change his clothes and went with them for a kind of question. They say, `No, it will be for two hours. That's it.'

KENYON: Al-Hajj was one of four of President Lahoud's top former security generals arrested on the recommendation of German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. The arrests startled Lebanese and left no doubt that the UN probe into Hariri's killing is reaching high. Lahoud, who had his term in office extended with help from Syria, is under attack as never before.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: Each Friday night in prime time, the pro-Hariri Future TV channel runs a show called "The Investigation for the Sake of Lebanon." Host Farez Hachan(ph) says he has no illusions about solving the Hariri assassination on the airwaves, but he believes his program encouraged some important witnesses to approach the UN investigators with their testimony.

Mr. FAREZ HACHAN (Host, "The Investigation for the Sake of Lebanon"): (Through Translator) One of the reasons they gave for coming forward was because they had seen my show, and they said, `When we're watching your show, our conscience felt that we had to get up and we had to speak.'

KENYON: President Lahoud has been increasingly isolated, according to Lebanese and Western officials. Lahoud was snubbed by US and other officials during the United Nations summit in New York. But Prime Minister Fuad Siniora from the opposition Future Movement, led by Hariri's son Saad, was greeted enthusiastically. Lahoud insists that his hands are clean, and he fully intends to stay in power until his term expires in 2007. But columnists are already writing Lahoud's political obituary, and opposition lawmaker Elias Atella(ph) says Lahoud should go.

Mr. ELIAS ATELLA: (Through Translator) I think what the president is saying is unbelievable, is incredible. It's not my right to pre-empt what's going to happen in the report or the interrogations which are going on. But I believe all the political powers at play in Lebanon no longer have faith in this president.

KENYON: Wallid Shoucair, Beirut bureau chief of the Al-Hayat newspaper, believes Mehlis and his team have found at least three profitable sources of solid evidence.

Mr. WALLID SHOUCAIR (Al-Hayat): The first--what some secret witnesses gave to this commission; second is the phone calls that have been recorded before and after the crime; and third, tracking the money of the four officers.

KENYON: Lebanon's strict banking secrecy protections have been lifted on at least 30 individuals, and phone records have been scrutinized. Mehlis was granted an additional 40 days for his probe. Syria has agreed to allow his team to interrogate several current and former security officers. But as the investigation winds down, fears are growing in Beirut of a backlash from the remnants of Syria's once-dominant security services. A bomb last Friday killed one person and injured some two dozens in a residential neighborhood.

There is a political backlash as well. One Beirut columnist says there's a certain amount of support for the view that Mehlis is a tool of the US and Israel, trying to do what those countries appear unable to do directly: topple Bashar Al-Assad from power in Syria. This argument sees Mehlis sending a damning report to the UN Security Council next month, triggering more pressure and a new call for sanctions by the US and its allies. What's not clear, analysts say, is what might come after Assad and whether regime change would bring progress or more instability and confusion to the region. Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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