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Lebanon OKs Special Court for Assassination Trials

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Lebanon OKs Special Court for Assassination Trials

Middle East

Lebanon OKs Special Court for Assassination Trials

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The political crisis in Lebanon worsened this week with the assassination of Interior Minister Pierre Gemayal, a Christian opposed to Syrian influence. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, told BCC Radio today that Lebanon's future is at stake.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.): The successful re-emergence of democracy there is being directly challenged by the terrorist Hezbollah and those who support them, Syria, Iran and others. I think this is a fight between democracy and terrorism.

ELLIOTT: The Gemayal murder is the latest in a string of political killings in Lebanon. Today the government formerly approved the blueprint for a special international court to try those responsible, in particular for the murder last year of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Joining us on the line from Beirut is reporter Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post. Hello.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Washington Post): Hi.

ELLIOTT: Anthony, the planning for this year's special court began after Mr. Hariri's death last year. Mr. Gemayel, I understand, had tentatively approved the court. Was his killing meant to derail the tribunal?

Mr. SHADID: His killing may have been meant to delay the tribunal in one sense, and that is that you needed a third of members in a cabinet to approve the U.N. blueprint. Now, six ministers have already withdrawn, two are loyal to Hezbollah, three others are also Shiite ministers, and another one was allied. His death makes six ministers gone. If there had been two more ministers that were not part of the cabinet that had either resigned or died somehow, then the government would not have had a quorum and it could not have passed this blueprint.

That's kind of the back story. But really what we're dealing with is probably a broader sense of where the country goes, and Ambassador Bolton was correct in one way, that the future of the country is being decided in some ways because it is a struggle between basically two camps in the country right now.

ELLIOTT: And what are those two camps?

Mr. SHADID: Well, you have in one camp Hezbollah and its allies, which include Christian leader General Michel Aoun. On the other side you have a kind of multi-sectarian group of Sunni Muslims, Druse and other Christians. In a lot of ways they represent the government and the cabinet at this point.

ELLIOTT: Now, we should note that even though a preliminary U.N. investigation points to the involvement of Syrian and possibly Lebanese security forces in Mr. al-Hariri's death last year, that Syria has denied any involvement.

Mr. SHADID: That's right. Syria has denied any involvement. The international query has not been completed yet, and it's - you know, the very, very preliminary report suggests involvement by Lebanese and Syrian security forces. But as you point out, there aren't any suspects that have been named at this point.

ELLIOTT: What does the vote today tell us about the strength of the government? I understand earlier this week, after Gemayel's murder, several cabinet members had actually locked themselves down in the building that houses the prime ministry, fearing for their own lives.

Mr. SHADID: Beirut's a very unsettled city these days. There's no question about that. As the vote was taking place in cabinet, there was a heavy military presence in downtown Beirut. There are armored personnel carriers along with (unintelligible) soldiers posted at different places in the city.

You know, I think when people look back at what this vote represents, it may have marked a turning point in a crisis that's as big as this country has faced in a generation. Hezbollah has threatened to go to the streets and protest, bringing down a government they consider illegitimate. The government shows (unintelligible) there doesn't seem to be a lot of room for compromise at this point.

ELLIOTT: You know, earlier this week at Gemayel's funeral, it actually turned into a rally of sorts as his supporters took to the streets. What has been Hezbollah's response during this time?

Mr. SHADID: Well, I think you make a good point about mentioning the supporters of Gemayel taking to the streets. Now, you know, last month, late last month, Hezbollah's leader, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, had threatened to do demonstrations as a way of fulfilling their demands.

Now, in the end it became Hezbollah's opponents that were the first ones to take it to the streets, and in some ways the funeral on Thursday represented the first mobilization by Hezbollah's opponents. In some ways it represents a challenge to Hezbollah as well now. They - especially with the decision today by the cabinet to approve the international court, they are in a sense challenged, you know, to make some kind of response, and their response is most likely going to be, you know, some form of mass protest.

ELLIOTT: Do you get the sense that the government there, even with the resignations of the Shiite cabinet members and this whole idea that legitimacy of the government is in question, can it hold it together?

Mr. SHADID: Well, I think this is the question right now. And this is what's, you know, what's happening, this crisis is playing out at a lot of different levels. In the end it's going to decide which direction this country takes. Does it take a, you know, nominally more pro-American kind of tilt that's represented by the government today? Or does it take a, you know, more anti-American, more pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian tilt if Hezbollah's agenda is pushed ahead?

This is a battle that's far from over and it's one that probably could play out for months, and even years.

ELLIOTT: Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid in Beirut. Thank you so much.

Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.

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