U.N. Probe of Hariri Killing Extended

The U.N. Security Council has given a team of investigators six more months to probe the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. A U.N. report released earlier in the week provided further evidence Syria had a hand in the car bombing that killed Hariri on a Beirut street last February. Syria insists it was not involved.

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The United Nations Security Council has given a team of investigators six more months to look into an assassination. The case involves the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. A UN report released earlier in the week provided further evidence that Syria had a hand in the car bombing in Beirut. Syria insists it was not involved and has mounted an aggressive defense. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

A tent wrapped in flags in downtown Damascus is headquarters for regular pro-government demonstrations and discussions. On the streets, black banners feature a pensive president, Bashar Al-Assad, and a poem that sums up the Syrian government's message. `The country is the victim of a relentless US-led smear campaign, and Syria must fight back.'

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in a foreign language)

AMOS: At night, young Syrians wave flags at passing cars while loudspeakers pump out patriotic songs. This is new in Syria, and so is President Assad's defiant tone. In an interview on Russian television, he warned if the UN Security Council imposed sanctions, it would destabilize not just Syria but the whole world. `Syria had nothing to do with Hariri's murder,' he declared.

So who killed the former prime minister? Syria's state-controlled newspapers print plenty of theories. The Israelis did or Hariri's son had the most to gain, or blame some shadowy Lebanese groups. Abdullah Dardari, Syria's deputy prime minister, says the UN investigation is unfair.

Mr. ABDULLAH DARDARI (Deputy Prime Minister, Syria): We are being honest and frank with the people of Syria, who are after all very smart and intelligent and know what's happening around them.

AMOS: As for arresting Syrian suspects, Dardari says US investigator Detlev Mehlis will have to convince a Syrian judge.

Mr. DARDARI: This will have to be based according to Syrian law. You cannot just drag somebody out of their house in their pajamas, send them to wherever Mr. Mehlis wants them to go.

AMOS: Last month Syria seemed powerless under intense international pressure: Either hand over top security officials named in the UN investigation, including close members of the president's own family, or suffer economic sanctions.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (The Daily Star): They're punching. They're fighting back.

AMOS: Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based journalist, says Damascus has lobbied Arab governments and members of the Security Council, including Russia.

Mr. KHOURI: And the strategy that the Syrians are using is one that they've always used, which is to cloud the waters and muddy the waters and create some controversy and just wait it out.

AMOS: One controversy: key witnesses in the UN report have been discredited. One is in a French jail. The other publicly recanted his testimony on Syrian TV.

(Soundbite of Syrian TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He claimed he'd been kidnapped in Lebanon, then offered millions in bribes to say Syria planned Hariri's murder. Syrian officials used the interview to raise doubts about the investigation at home at the same time they pledged to cooperate with the UN. Josh Landis, an American professor living in Damascus, says this is what Syrians tell him.

Professor JOSH LANDIS: This is what our government should have been doing from the beginning. This is hard evidence. You know, they're attacking back. At the same time, the Syrians don't want sanctions. They have to have their government cooperating.

AMOS: Under diplomatic siege, Syria's president made his most provocative speech in November, says Landis, broadcast live from Damascus University. Assad warned regime change in Syria would bring chaos.

Prof. LANDIS: He pressed the West's nose to the wall. You have the choice to drive us to the edge and possibly overturn the regime by putting on economic sanctions and so forth, or you have to give us a pass on this. Do you want another Iraq?

AMOS: Regional governments, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also warn Washington against pushing Syrian too hard, says Ned Walker, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, a former Middle East ambassador. And, he says, the Bush administration appears to be listening.

Mr. NED WALKER (President, Middle East Institute): They also have absolutely no idea how to create a change in Syria without collapsing the whole house of cards. So it's the Syrians, the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Americans--all have this vested interest--or they think they have--in maintaining the regime in Syria.

AMOS: A new UN resolution calls on Syria to cooperate fully with the Hariri murder investigation, but for now sanctions are not on the table. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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