Prosecutor to Brief U.N. on Assassination Report
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A car bombing in Lebanon is the subject of a United Nations Security Council meeting today. The bomb killed more than 20 people earlier this year, including Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The council will consider a report on the attack. The report says evidence points to the involvement of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services. Syria says Western governments are using this issue as a political weapon against their president, Bashar Al-Assad, and in Lebanon itself people continue debating the significance of the assassination. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.
PETER KENYON reporting:
For many Lebanese, this is a political crime with the emphasis on crime, and the immediate concern is justice.
(Soundbite of demonstrators)
KENYON: On Sunday, demonstrators gathered near Hariri's grave in downtown Beirut. They had no doubt that those who knew of or took part in the plot to kill Hariri would include Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, and some of the most powerful men in Syria, including President Assad's brother and brother-in-law.
But yesterday, in a show of strength in both Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, thousands of Syrians turned out to condemn the UN investigation, led by German prosecutor Detlef Mehlis.
(Soundbite of demonstrators)
KENYON: Organized by Syria's pro-government unions, the demonstrations featured angry official attacks on the Mehlis report, translated into English by Syrian television.
(Soundbite of Syrian television broadcast)
Unidentified Man: This massive demonstration confirms our people's rejection of the unfounded accusations and fabricated conclusions that appeared in the Mehlis report.
KENYON: The Security Council debate may be followed by a ministerial discussion, already requested by the United States. US and British officials are calling for a hard line against Damascus, but France is sounding a note of caution, warning that it's premature to impose international sanctions against Syria before the Hariri investigation is finished.
At his palatial mountain home outside Beirut, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt said the Lebanese opposition wants Syria to cooperate with the UN probe, but he worries that sanctions will only hurt ordinary Syrians, not those who may be behind Hariri's killing.
Mr. WALID JUMBLATT (Druse Leader): I think the UN is helping. I don't--I just warning some countries not to be in a hurry, but it's--not to politicize the report.
KENYON: Analysts here wonder if Assad will go for the Gadhafi option. That's a reference to the way Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi rehabilitated his totalitarian regime, in Western eyes, by giving up weapons of mass destruction programs and cooperating in the war on terror. Beirut is buzzing with speculation that Assad may be preparing to make a similar deal, perhaps by getting tougher with Iraqi insurgents or curtailing the flow of weapons to Palestinian militants.
Hariri's son, Saad, speaking to CNN from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said, quote, "No deal can be made on the blood of Rafiq Hariri."
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. SAAD HARIRI (Rafiq Hariri's Son): If a deal is really being cooked up, it just will show that there is no justice in the world.
KENYON: Analyst Fawaz Traboulsi at Lebanese American University says Syria's blustery condemnations of the Mehlis report as political may be an effort to buy time. How, he wonders, does one prove a political assassination with out being political? Traboulsi says if there are negotiations going on, one stumbling block will be what he calls the very awkward style of the Syrian regime.
Mr. FAWAZ TRABOULSI (Lebanese American University): It's afraid, it's paranoid, always late in giving concessions, always giving partial concessions, which is one of the problems of this regime anyway.
KENYON: But Traboulsi says another stumbling block is the US agenda, which seems more interested in changing Syria's behavior, if not its regime, than in promoting a swift conclusion to the Mehlis report. He calls it a painful lesson that Arab countries have learned time and again.
Mr. TRABOULSI: Whenever you really get into it, nobody cares about the people. They don't figure in the agenda, the Syrian people. Democracy doesn't figure in the agenda, and that's a very important point to remember. The talk is about democracy but everything is geopolitics, geostrategy, bias towards Israel, whatever.
KENYON: In any event, Mehlis and his investigators have nearly two months to gather more evidence and any prosecution could drag on for months or years after that. That means the Lebanese people will continue to wait and the uncertainty may be the least of their worries. A series of explosions targeting anti-Syrian politicians and journalists has rattled this country since the Hariri investigation began and analysts say there could be more to come. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.