Crisis-weary Lebanon braces for Hariri tribunal verdict

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fifteen years after a truck bomb killed Lebanon’s former Sunni leader Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut, triggering regional upheaval, a U.N.-backed court trying four suspects from Shi’ite Hezbollah delivers a verdict on Friday that could shake the country again.

The defendants, members of the powerful Iran-backed group, have been tried in absentia on charges of planning and arranging the 2005 bombing which killed the former prime minister who spearheaded Lebanon’s reconstruction after its long civil war.

Hariri’s assassination prompted mass protests in Beirut and a wave of international pressure which forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon after the U.N. investigator linked it with the bombing.

The assassination also inflamed political and sectarian tensions inside Lebanon and across the Middle East, particularly when investigators started probing potential Hezbollah links to the death of a politician who was backed by the West as well as Sunni Gulf Arab states opposed to Tehran.

Hezbollah, which is both a political party in Lebanon’s government and a heavily armed guerrilla group, denies any role in Hariri’s killing and dismisses the Netherlands-based tribunal as politicized.

Few expect the defendants to be handed over if convicted, but any guilty verdicts could pose a problem to the government and deepen rifts unresolved since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country is already reeling from the worst economic crisis in decades and a deepening COVID-19 outbreak.

Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, Argentina and Honduras as well as the Sunni Muslim Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. The EU classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group, but not its political wing.

Hariri’s supporters, including his son Saad who subsequently also served as prime minister, say they are not seeking revenge or confrontation, but that the court verdict must be respected.

“We… look forward to August 7 being a day of truth and justice for Lebanon and a day of punishment for the criminals,” Saad Hariri said last week.

“AVOIDING STRIFE”

Hariri stepped down as prime minister in October after failing to address demands of protesters demonstrating against years of corruption by a ruling elite which has driven Lebanon to its current financial crisis.

His successor Hassan Diab, backed by Hezbollah and its allies, says the country must avoid further turmoil over the tribunal verdicts. “Confronting strife is a priority,” Diab tweeted last week.

In the Feb. 14, 2005 bombing, a truck laden with 3,000 kg of high-grade explosives blew up as Rafik Hariri’s motorcade passed Beirut’s waterfront Saint Georges hotel, killing him and 21 other people and leaving a huge crater in the road.

Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi are charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist attack. Ayyash is charged with committing a terrorist act, homicide and attempted homicide.

Prosecutors said data culled from telephone networks showed that the defendants called each other from dozens of mobile phones to monitor Hariri in the months before the attack and to coordinate their movements on the day itself.

The men have not been seen in public for years.

Hezbollah has often questioned the tribunal’s integrity and neutrality, saying its work had been tainted by false witnesses and reliance on telephone records that Israeli spies arrested in Lebanon could have manipulated.

“It is Hezbollah’s right to have doubts about the court, which transformed into political score-settling far from the truth,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst with links to Hezbollah leaders. Any verdict “has no value” to the group, he said.

Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper, said neither Saad Hariri nor Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wanted to escalate tensions.

But he expected Hariri to call for the defendants to be handed over if found guilty – which would leave Hezbollah on the defensive politically despite its military strength. If the group refused to surrender them it could put the government which it helped put together in difficulty.

As it tries to tackle the deep economic crisis, a guilty verdict could also jeopardise Lebanon’s efforts, which have been supported by France, to win international aid.

“France… will have to take a position on Hezbollah after the verdict comes out on Aug. 7,” Boumonsef said.

France hosted a donor meeting in Paris in 2018 when Beirut won more than $11 billion in pledges for infrastructure investment. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Lebanese leaders in Beirut last month that Paris was ready to mobilize international support if Lebanon moved ahead with reform.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Lebanon’s PM Hariri resigns, attacking Iran, Hezbollah

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri reacts at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Lebanon November 3, 2016.

By Angus McDowall , Tom Perry and Sarah Dadouch

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Saturday, saying he believed there was an assassination plot against him and accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

His resignation thrusts Lebanon back into the frontline of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry and seems likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions between Lebanese Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

It also shatters a coalition government formed last year after years of political deadlock, and which was seen as representing a victory for Shi’ite Hezbollah and Iran.

Hariri, who is closely allied with Saudi Arabia, alleged in a televised broadcast that Hezbollah was “directing weapons” at Yemenis, Syrians and Lebanese and said the Arab world would “cut off the hands that wickedly extend to it”.

Hariri’s coalition, which took office last year, grouped nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, including Hezbollah. It took office in a political deal that made Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, president.

It was not immediately clear who might succeed Hariri, Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician.

The post of prime minister is reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing system. The constitution requires Aoun to nominate the candidate with the greatest support among MPs.

“We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of martyr Rafik al-Hariri. I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life,” Hariri said.

Rafik al-Hariri was killed in a 2005 Beirut bomb attack that pushed his son Saad into politics and set off years of turmoil.

The Saudi-owned pan-Arab television channel al-Arabiya al-Hadath reported that an assassination plot against Saad al-Hariri was foiled in Beirut days ago, citing an unnamed source. Lebanese officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a statement read from an undisclosed location, Hariri said Hezbollah and Iran had brought Lebanon into the “eye of a storm” of international sanctions. He said Iran was sowing strife, destruction and ruin wherever it went and accused it of a “deep hatred for the Arab nation”.

Aoun’s office said Hariri had called him from “outside Lebanon” to inform him of his resignation.

Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia on Friday after a meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Afterwards, Velayati described Hariri’s coalition as “a victory” and “great success”.

 

TUSSLE FOR INFLUENCE

Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze minority, who has frequently played kingmaker in Lebanese politics, said he feared the consequences of Hariri’s resignation.

“We cannot afford to fight the Iranians from Lebanon,” he said, advocating an approach of compromise with Hezbollah in Lebanon while waiting for regional circumstances to allow Saudi-Iranian dialogue.

Iranian officials denounced the resignation, noting that it had been made from outside Lebanon, while Saudi officials appeared to crow over it.

“Hariri’s resignation was done with planning by Donald Trump, the president of America, and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, to destabilize the situation in Lebanon and the region,” said Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, in remarks to a state broadcaster.

Saudi Arabia’s influential Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan, who met Hariri in Riyadh this week, echoed the language of the Lebanese politician saying in a tweet: “The hands of treachery and aggression must be cut off.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a regional power tussle, backing opposing forces in wars and political struggles in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq.

A U.N.-backed tribunal charged five Hezbollah members over Rafik al-Hariri’s killing. Their trial in absentia at the Hague began in January 2014 and Hezbollah and the Syrian government, have both denied any involvement in the killing.

In his statement, Hariri said Iran was “losing in its interference in the affairs of the Arab world”, adding that Lebanon would “rise as it had done in the past”.

 

POLITICAL DEAL

Hezbollah’s close ties to Iran and its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war with rebels have been a major source of tension in neighboring Lebanon for years.

The Lebanese government has adopted an official position of “disassociation” from the conflict, but this has come under strain in recent months with Hezbollah and its allies pushing for a normalization of ties with Assad.

Since taking office, Hariri had worked to garner international aid for Lebanon to cope with the strain of hosting some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, seeking billions of dollars to boost its sluggish economy.

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told Reuters there was no danger to Lebanon’s economy or its currency.

“Over previous decades, Hezbollah was able to impose a reality in Lebanon with the power of its weapons, which it claims is the (anti-Israel) resistance’s weapons, which are aimed at the chests of our Syrian and Yemeni brothers, not to mention the Lebanese,” Hariri said.

He said the Lebanese people were suffering from Hezbollah’s interventions, both internally and at the level of their relationships with other Arab countries.

Hariri has visited Saudi Arabia, a political foe of Iran and Hezbollah, twice in the past week, meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.

In recent weeks, leading Christian politicians who oppose Hezbollah have also visited Saudi Arabia.

 

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Tom Perry, Sarah Dadouch and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo and Reem Shamseddine in Khobar; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Stephen Powell)