Robert Worth: Does Lebanon want to know Hariri's killers?

For more than five years, much of Lebanese politics has seemed to revolve around a single question: Who killed Rafik Hariri?

For years, billboards bearing the face of the former prime minister — killed in a Beirut car bombing in 2005 — hung in the city with the words "The Truth — for the sake of Lebanon."

An international tribunal was established under United Nations auspices, and many Lebanese believed that an indictment of top Syrian officials - widely believed to be the culprits - could help protect Lebanon's sovereignty.

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But in recent weeks, a consensus has emerged in Lebanon - presumably, through leaks - that the tribunal will soon indict members of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement, for playing a role in the killing. That accusation, rumoured since last year, is already raising tensions in Lebanon, and some fear it could provoke another bloody internal conflict between Hezbollah and its pro-Western rivals like the one that took place in May 2008.

Hezbollah, which is allied with Syria, remains the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has made clear he will not accept any indictment of Hezbollah members. He has warned the Lebanese authorities to do the same.

In a 16 July speech, Mr Nasrallah cast the tribunal as part of an Israeli plot. That provoked angry responses from some of Lebanon's Western-aligned political figures, who said Mr Nasrallah's comments amounted to an admission of guilt.

Then, last Thursday, Mr Nasrallah held a remarkable news conference in which he said he knew the tribunal would soon issue indictments against Hezbollah members. Mr Nasrallah said he had been told so by Mr Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, the current prime minister. He added that Saad Hariri had essentially pardoned him in advance, declaring the men to be accused were "undisciplined" members of Hezbollah with tenuous connections to the group.

Mr Nasrallah clearly hoped to undercut any indictment, not only by breaking the news himself in advance, but by invoking Mr. Hariri, who has long been the tribunal's chief supporter. Mr Nasrallah's gambit may work, some analysts say, because Mr. Hariri's own political position has changed.

After his father's death in 2005, Mr Hariri emerged as the leader of an anti-Syrian political coalition that called for Hezbollah's disarmament. But his movement, known as March 14 (the date of a vast anti-Syrian demonstration in 2005), gradually eroded as its Western allies moved toward engagement with Syria. After he became prime minister of a national unity government last year, Mr Hariri bowed to political reality and began building a relationship with Damascus.

At the same time, the tribunal, which had released early reports pointing to high-level Syrian involvement in the killing of Rafik Hariri, went quiet, and some of its witnesses recanted. More questions about the tribunal emerged last year after a judge released four senior Lebanese state security officers who were held for four years in the Hariri killing but not charged.

Some have speculated the tribunal's prosecutors will charge Hezbollah members of playing accessory roles in the fatal car bombing, as they were unable to find enough evidence against the main perpetrators.

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"The tribunal was a card to be played against Syria, and now it seems they're trying to get rid of it," said Elias Muhanna, author of the Lebanese political blog Qifa Nabki. "It's almost as if nobody wants to know who killed Hariri anymore."

Even so, some analysts say any indictment of Hezbollah members would damage the group's reputation. "In this part of the world, when you say 'this person is suspected' and Hezbollah refuses to hand them over, everyone will believe Hezbollah is guilty," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for March 14-aligned Beirut newspaper Al Nahar.

Mr Naoum also pointed out that while Mr Nasrallah's tone in last week's speech was calmer than in previous speeches, his message was more aggressive. Mr Nasrallah demanded the March 14 faction acknowledge the mistakes it had made in recent years with its accusations against Syria and its allies.

Some analysts say Hezbollah is on the defensive for reasons that go well beyond the tribunal. Fears of another war with Israel have been on the rise in recent months, fuelled by reports that Hezbollah obtained Scud missiles from Syria. Mr Nasrallah is aware that many Lebanese would blame Hezbollah for the damage inflicted in such a war, which is likely to be devastating.

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