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Tensions Mount In Lebanon Over Hariri Murder Probe

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Tensions Mount In Lebanon Over Hariri Murder Probe

Middle East

Tensions Mount In Lebanon Over Hariri Murder Probe

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

We're going next to Lebanon, where there's talk of another sectarian war. Tensions are running high between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. A major source of those tensions is a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. A Sunni leader died in a car bombing in Beirut back in 2005.

The tribunal is expected to indict members of the powerful Lebanese Shiite faction - Hezbollah. Hezbollah leaders say they won't tolerate that. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently traveled to Beirut and sent this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Here in Beirut at a cafe called Future, Sunni patrons play cards beneath huge posters of Rafiq Hariri. To them, the late prime minister is a martyred hero.

Like many Lebanese, they want someone to pay for his death. They back the special tribunal investigating the assassination. But they also worry the quest for justice will spark violence across Lebanon, between Sunnis and Shiites, especially if the tribunal points the finger at Hezbollah, as is expected.

One retired civil servant at the Sunni cafe calls himself Abu Haisam. He likens the current tension between the sects to a volcano that is ready to blow.

Mr. ABU HAISAM: (Through translator) Hezbollah isn't going to stay quiet if they are indicted. I mean, these guys are heavily armed by Iran. They were given those weapons to fight Israel and now they are turning them on us.

NELSON: The 85-year-old and many others in Beirut fear a repeat of May 2008 when Shiite gunmen took over the Muslim part of the city after the government tried shutting down Hezbollah's communication network, among other things.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

NELSON: A short drive away in a Shiite neighborhood, lottery worker Mustafa Fawaz shares Abu Haisam's concerns about the growing rift.

Mr. MUSTAFA FAWAZ (Lottery Worker) (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Except, the 52-year-old blames Israel and the United States for stirring up the tensions. He, like many Shiites here, accuses them of manipulating the Hariri tribunal. They claim the U.S. and Israel are falsely accusing Hezbollah to embarrass its main patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Fawaz and many other Shiites argue the tribunal should be done away with before any indictments come out. But Lebanese experts say that's easier said than done.

Paul Salem heads the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Dr. PAUL SALEM (Director, Carnegie Middle East Center): The crisis is a serious one. Hezbollah is effectively asking the Prime Minister, Sa'ad Hariri, who is the son of the assassinated former prime minister, effectively to give up on the tribunal which is investigating his own father's assassination. And this is very, very difficult for the prime minister to do. It's very, very difficult for the Sunni community to swallow.

NELSON: Especially since the Lebanese government had agreed earlier to drop allegations of Syrian involvement in the bombing. That agreement cost the younger Hariri a lot of support. So despite the fear of new violence, Lebanese politicians on both sides are thus far refusing to budge. That could topple the fragile coalition government, which is led by Hariri's camp and backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on one side, and includes the Hezbollah camp backed by Iran and Syria on the other.

Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Fayyad claims the tribunal has no credibility, and that the Shiite faction has a right to defend itself against false allegations.

Dr. ALI FAYYAD (Director, Consultative Centre for Studies and Documentation, Beirut University): We are worried about the big picture, in general. Because we consider one of the results of the indictment must be the more escalations of the tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites in this country.

NELSON: But Fares Souhaid, the secretary general for Hariri's coalition, claims such assertions are only an attempt to give the guilty parties a way to avoid prosecution.

Mr. FARES SOUHAID (Secretary-General, Lebanon): We are supporting this tribunal for moral reason. It's the first time we can reach justice in Lebanon.

NELSON: He also disputes that his stance means war is inevitable.

Mr. SOUHAID: Every Lebanese is thinking "Apocalypse Now," that this tribunal is coming with an apocalyptic vision. I think that it's not true.

NELSON: And some Lebanese agree with him. Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, remains optimistic that given international pressure, the sides will reach a compromise.

Professor HILAL KHASHAN (Political Science, American University, Beirut): I think the matter will eventually be resolved in an open-ended manner that makes everybody half upset.

NELSON: Paul Salem, of the Carnegie Center, says the Lebanese government might also try to buy more time, by asking the tribunal to review its investigation. And delay any issuance of its findings, which are expected before the end of the year.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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