U.N. Hariri Probe Continues, with New Leadership

The United Nations has appointed a new envoy to continue the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri last February. The initial report last fall implicated top Lebanese and Syrian security officials in Hariri's killing.

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Investigators have already cast suspicion on Syria for a political assassination. Now they want to talk to Syria's president. The United Nations is examining last year's killing in Syria's neighbor Lebanon. That's where a car bomb killed former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Pressure to more about the killing is coming from the United States and from Lebanon, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Beirut.

Unidentified Man: (Chanting in foreign language)

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Heads bowed, a group of Lebanese parliamentarians gathers at the grave of Rafiq Hariri. It's the feast of Eid al-Ahda, when Muslims traditionally honor the dead. The grave's a shrine to Lebanese nationalism. It's engulfed by a mound of white flowers; beneath a canopy, a giant Lebanese flag.

Eleven months have elapsed since Hariri was killed by a massive car bombing in Beirut. Hasi Yusef(ph), a member of Hariri's parliamentary bloc, says the need to establish the culprits remains as strong as ever.

Mr. HASI YUSEF (Lebanese Member of Parliament) It is important for all of us that we need to know what's the truth so we can finally turn this page and move along.

REEVES: The task of finding out the truth lies with the United Nations investigation established amid the international uproar over the assassination. It's being led by a German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, now replaced by Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor with the International Criminal Court. Rami Khouri, editor at large of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, doesn't expect this to impact the inquiry's momentum.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor at Large, Daily Star): This is really beyond the character of a single person. There's about a hundred people working in the investigation's office here in Lebanon, and there's officials and experts brought in from many countries all the time. So this is a very serious, very large operation. So I think the change in the leadership will not really have any significant impact.

REEVES: Mehlis has filed initial reports to the UN saying there's probable cause that senior Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials plotted the assassination, a claim Syria denies. UN officials now want to talk to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad himself. Rami Khouri says pressure on Damascus is building steadily.

Mr. KHOURI: You have pressure from the international community through the UN Security Council, you have pressure from the Lebanese public opinion, you've got pressure from around the Arab world and you now have a former insider, a major leading Sunni like Khaddam.

REEVES: By Khaddam, he means Abdel-Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president. For decades, Khaddam was a key player in Assad's inner circle. Now out of favor and living in France, he recently dropped a bombshell by publicly claiming Assad threatened Hariri shortly before the assassination.

(Soundbite of Lebanese newscast)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: As Assad mulls his next move, every development makes headline news on Lebanese TV. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been urging Assad to cooperate. So in much blunter terms has the United States. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of State, yesterday said the US would refer Syria back to the UN Security Council if it doesn't stop obstructing the inquiry and meddling in Lebanese affairs. Her spokesman, Sean McCormack, also pointed out suspicion of Syrian involvement in other recent assassinations in Lebanon.

Mr. SEAN McCORMACK (Spokesman for Condoleezza Rice): I can't stand here and tell you that I can connect the dots for you between Syrian and these assassination attempts. I think that there is certainly very clearly an attempt on the part of some to create this atmosphere of fear and violence.

Mr. SHIBLI MALAD(ph) (Human Rights Lawyer): I can't--no one can read into President Assad's inner soul. My sense is that matters are relatively simple. The man is in a bind.

REEVES: That's Shibli Malad, a Lebanese human rights lawyer, now campaigning as a candidate to replace Lebanon's pro-Syrian president. He says Assad faces a stark choice.

Mr. MALAD: Either he submits to the international inquiry--whether he prepares or not his people for that, he will have to deliver a number of persons who clearly are accused in participating in the killing of our prime minister--or he refuses. If he refuses, we are back to the isolation of the Syrian leadership, and God knows how this ends.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Beirut.

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