On Monday, 14 February 2005 Saad Hariri, then 35, saw his father Rafik, the former prime minister of Lebanon, together with 22 other people, blown to pieces by a car bomb. Having attended a parliamentary session in central Beirut, Rafik was apparently heading home along the beachfront in a convoy when the explosion occurred just before midday, in a busy area full of hotels and banks.
Rafik Hariri, who had resigned as prime minister and joined the opposition the previous October, had been hoping to stage a comeback in legislative elections the following May. He had recently added his voice to calls by France and the US, as well as other opposition politicians, for Syrian troops to be withdrawn from Lebanon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad instantly condemned the attack as a "terrible criminal act".
Lebanese security officials immediately suspected Hezbollah, because Hariri was demanding that the party disband its militia and arrange for its thousands of fighters to join up with Lebanon's conventional armed forces. The bombing also bore all the hallmarks of Imad Mugniyeh, who masterminded the 1980s Beirut lorry bombings and who was himself killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008.
On 13 December 2005, the Lebanese government asked the United Nations to establish an international tribunal to identify and try those allegedly responsible for the attack. It took two Security Council resolutions and eighteen months before the special tribunal formally came into being in June 2007. Its mandate: to prosecute persons responsible for the attack resulting in the death of Rafik Hariri and the death or injury of other persons. The tribunal’s jurisdiction could be extended beyond the 14 February 2005 bombing if it finds that other attacks, that occurred in Lebanon between 1 October 2004 and 12 December 2005, are connected. Crimes that occurred after 12 December 2005 can also be eligible for inclusion in the tribunal’s jurisdiction if so decided by the Government of the Lebanese Republic and the United Nations, and with the consent of the Security Council.
None of which at all pleases Syria, Iran or their protégé terrorist organization, Hezbollah, which has in the interim been boosted by an influx of military hardware from both its client states, and has acquired a significant presence in the political establishment of Lebanon. Since 1982, Iran in particular has invested billions in establishing Hezbollah as a political, paramilitary and social powerhouse in the country.
This past week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been visiting Lebanon in general, and Hezbollah in particular. On Tuesday Hezbollah held a mass rally in Beirut. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah welcomed the Iranian leader and called him "strong support for the opposition" – that is, Hezbollah, the opposition to the Lebanese government which is now led by Rafik’s son, Saad. Ahmadinejad addressed the crowd via an interpreter. He dubbed Lebanon a "university for Jihad" – in effect assigning the Lebanese people a role in his policy of constant war with Israel, whether they choose such a role or not.
In a few weeks' time, the United Nations special tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri’s assassination is due to publish its findings. So the next day, (Wednesday 14 October), Nasrallah attempted to stamp out mounting speculation that evidence which linked members of Hezbollah to the murder had been unearthed, speculation fuelled by numerous press reports in Lebanon that cited sources close to the international tribunal investigating the murder. Nasrallah confirmed that the tribunal had questioned 12 individuals connected to the party as "witnesses, not suspects," adding that another six people could be summoned for questioning. He claimed that the allegations were intended to weaken the "resistance," a term used for the party's formidable military apparatus.
"We have been a target for years," he said. "Destroying Hezbollah is a dream. The objective is to distort Hezbollah's image, and pressure and intimidate the party."
Details of the UN tribunal's findings that have been leaked to the Beirut press suggest that, apart from Mugniyeh, the investigators have uncovered evidence that links as many as 50 senior Hezbollah officials to the assassination. This includes intercepts of mobile phone calls made between Hezbollah officials in the days leading up to Hariri's murder.
In an attempt to distance the organisation from the report's conclusions, Nasrallah, who lives in permanent hiding for fear of assassination by Israel, issued a video statement in the summer claiming that those involved with Hariri's assassination were "undisciplined members which the group has no relations with".
Initially, the investigation linked Syria to the assassination, though Damascus has always denied involvement. The shift in the investigation's direction toward Hezbollah does not mean that Syria is off the hook, argue several Western officials and diplomats who have received briefings on aspects of the tribunal's findings.
Which perhaps explains why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad confirmed last week that a Syrian judge has issued arrest warrants for 33 people over providing false testimony to investigators. He denied the warrants were politically motivated. "They're a purely judicial issue," he told Turkey's TRT television.
The Wall Street Journal last week quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as saying that UN inquiries in Lebanon had been politicized and should be replaced by a purely Lebanese investigation. Hezbollah and its allies have also questioned the credibility of the investigation, accusing it of relying on false testimony and telephone records that Israeli spies could have manipulated. Hezbollah has said it expects to be targeted by the court – a prospect many Lebanese fear could plunge the country into fresh conflict.
As Con Coughlin, distinguished Middle East commentator for the London Daily Telegraph observed, by parading through Shia-dominated southern Lebanon last week, Ahmadinejad was not only demonstrating his loyalty to Tehran's favourite Islamic militia. He was also sending an uncompromising message to Saad Hariri's government to drop the charges against Hezbollah, or face the consequences.
Which perhaps explains why UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said loud and clear last week that the UN tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri’s murder would press ahead despite fears of violence.
"I want to be perfectly clear,” said Ban. “This tribunal is independent, with a clear mandate from the Security Council to uncover the truth and end impunity. I urge all Lebanese and regional parties not to prejudge the outcome, nor to interfere in the tribunal's work. ... It will go on."
Diplomats said the UN chief appeared to be aiming his comments primarily at Hezbollah, which has denounced the UN inquiry, and at neighbouring Syria, which has been increasingly critical of it. Some Lebanese politicians have accused Syria of being behind the assassination, and although Syria has denied involvement, it was forced in April 2005, following an international outcry, to end its three-decade military presence in Lebanon, pulling out some 14,000 troops and an unknown number of intelligence agents.
Fears of violence have intensified since rumours of the impending indictments began to circulate. Pro-Syrian politician Suleiman Franjieh warned last month of sectarian war in Lebanon if the tribunal indicted Hezbollah members.
But Secretary-General Ban rejected suggestions that the United Nations could be held responsible for any flare-up of violence resulting from the court's actions.
"Peace and security and political stability in Lebanon," he said, “should be different from this justice process.”
They should be, indeed. But will they?