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In Lebanon, Assassination Inquiry Proves Divisive, Could Rekindle Unrest

February 3, 2011 at 5:38 PM EST
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Special correspondent Kira Kay reports from Beirut about how an international tribunal's investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 other people might help end the nation's political violence or shatter the fragile stability after decades of civil war.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, political turmoil in a different corner of the Middle East: Lebanon.

Special correspondent Kira Kay reports from Beirut.

KIRA KAY: As protests have swept across the Arab world, Lebanon is no exception. But the demonstrations here are not about fighting autocratic rule. These young Lebanese are out to support their democratically elected leader brought down by the militant group Hezbollah following a political standoff.

MAN: No one is allowed, with the power of the weapons and the terrorism, to steal our — to steal this with — from us. We are the people of Lebanon. We are — we are here to let everyone hear our voice.

KIRA KAY: Political turmoil is not new to Lebanon. It is still a fragile place following 16 years of sectarian civil war that divided the capital, Beirut, into Muslim west and Christian east.

Today, the streets are still adorned with the images of leaders assassinated over the decades. Much of this violence is because the country is a true crossroads of cultures and interests.

Christians, Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, and a multitude of other factions create constantly shifting alliances.

PAUL SALEM, Carnegie Middle East Center: What we do have is a divided country, unfortunately, among different sectarian communities, Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Druzes, who very much feel their political identity is tied to their community rather than to the country in general.

KIRA KAY: Paul Salem is director of Carnegie Middle East Center.

PAUL SALEM: In Lebanon, all the communities are afraid. The Christians are afraid of the Muslim communities. The Sunnis are afraid of the Shiite community. The Shiites are afraid of Israel and the U.S. The Druze community is afraid of everybody.

KIRA KAY: Though Lebanon is a small country of 4.2 million people, the geopolitical stakes here are high. The interests of the United States, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia all intersect here, and the military might of Israel just over the border keeps everything on edge.

Today’s political upheaval has roots in events six years ago: the murder of two-time prime minister Rafik Hariri. On Feb. 14, 2005, a massive explosion destroyed Rafik Hariri’s motorcade, killing him and 22 others.

Hariri’s assassination did what no other act of political violence had: It sparked a massive popular uprising here, which some describe as a precursor to what is now being seen in Cairo. The protests forced the withdrawal of Syria, which had occupied Lebanon for three decades and was suspected of being behind Rafik Hariri’s murder. And protesters also demanded an international inquiry into the assassination.

Now, almost six years later, that justice might be about to happen. Two thousand miles away, in The Hague, Netherlands, an empty courtroom sits waiting for the trials of those accused of killing Hariri and other politicians whose murders might be related.

Herman von Hebel is the registrar of the tribunal.

HERMAN VON HEBEL, Special Tribunal for Lebanon: It was Lebanon itself who — who started the whole process by asking the United Nations to assist in setting up such an international tribunal, since there were insufficient guarantees that the Lebanese judiciary itself would be able to bring this to good results.

KIRA KAY: The United States has contributed significant funding, and the Lebanese government signed an agreement to provide half the budget, judges, and, most important, political support.

After years of investigations, marked by questions over false testimony and internal leaks, indictments are finally being reviewed for release.

ZAHER EIDO, Son of Assassination Victim: The bomb was so hard, the — some of the building from the other side, all the glasses were broken.

KIRA KAY: One man waiting for the tribunal to get under way is Zaher Eido.

ZAHER EIDO: This is the name of my father.

KIRA KAY: His father, Judge Walid Eido, was also assassinated, two years after Rafik Hariri.

ZAHER EIDO: What we think, it was remote control. As you can see here, it’s — it’s open. All the buildings from up the hill are seeing the alley.

KIRA KAY: So, somebody was watching, you think?

Yes, of course.

ZAHER EIDO: My father was assassinated because he was the first one in Lebanon after the assassination of Mr. Hariri to call for the international tribunal.

I am hoping to find out the truth: Who killed my father and why? I think it’s our right to ask for the justice. It’s the only way we can — we know who did it, and we — we stop it for the future.

KIRA KAY: But now, on the eve of the release of indictments, events have taken a dramatic turn, drawing the tribunal into the heart of Lebanese politics.

While Syria was long expected to be in some way implicated, word has leaked that, in fact, the tribunal’s main suspects may be members of Hezbollah. Officially designated a terrorist organization by the United States and supported by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah is popular here due to its militant resistance to Israeli incursions and occupation of southern Lebanon.

It represents Lebanon’s sizable Shia population and now holds 10 percent of the seats in Parliament. Reclusive Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has taken to the airwaves to demand that Lebanon remove its judges from The Hague, cut all funding, and end its agreement to arrest and hand over suspects.

Nasrallah also accused the United States and Israel of using the tribunal to attack his movement.

What is Hezbollah afraid of? Why do they care?

PAUL SALEM: Well, Hezbollah cares particularly for its image, first of all, in the Arab world, in the Muslim world. It’s presented itself as a resistance movement against Israel. Of course, it doesn’t want to be blamed for assassinating a Lebanese leader, a Lebanese politician. And it’s clear that it views the tribunal as a serious menace because it has taken such abrupt and dramatic action to try to break Lebanon’s relationship with it.

KIRA KAY: So far, Hezbollah has fought this battle politically. But every Lebanese remembers when Hezbollah’s militiamen seized large parts of Beirut just two years ago over a dispute with the Lebanese government. Fierce fighting around the country left dozens dead.

PAUL SALEM: By demonstrating its power and its willingness to use its power internally, it permanently changed the status quo of Lebanon. So, after that day, people lived under the — you know, the reality that Hezbollah has overwhelming military force, can use it when it needs to and might do so again.

KIRA KAY: On the other side of the fight over the tribunal is Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the murdered politician at the center of the tribunal’s mandate.

Strongly supported by the United States, Hariri has refused to back down vowing to stand by his father’s legacy and the tribunal.

SAAD HARIRI, Lebanese Prime Minister (through translator): It is the cause I dedicated myself to defend, and swore before God almighty and all the Lebanese not to abandon, regardless of the challenges.

KIRA KAY: The dispute at the top is mirrored on the streets of this Beirut neighborhood, split between Shia supporters of Hezbollah and Sunni supporters of Hariri.

SAMI JAROUDI (through translator): The country needs truth, stability and safety. Why do I need to pick and choose? Even if one group is against it, this is what is right.

KIRA KAY: This woman saw our camera and came to tell me that, without the tribunal, there would be utter devastation. She says she wants the tribunal, she wants the truth, she wants Saad Hariri.

But just around the corner at the local barbershop, there is a sharply different view. Owner Yusef Mohamed Ismail tells me the tribunal is the worst thing that has happened to his country.

What has it done to society here, from your opinion?

YUSEF MOHAMED ISMAIL, barbershop owner (through translator): This tribunal creates a split between brothers, between Sunnis and Shia, within the family. Sunnis will say Shia killed their leader, Rafik Hariri. Many are convinced. Just look at the street; there are already changes.

WALID JUMBLATT, Progressive Socialist Party: I know that justice is very important, but, at the same time, if justice is to lead — is to lead to bloodshed, what is the use of justice? Tell me.

Walid Jumblatt, the legendary leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, has become the swing vote in local politics. His own father was assassinated in 1977, and he was once a strong supporter of the tribunal. But he now fears Lebanon will become collateral damage to U.S. interests in the region.

WALID JUMBLATT: They have decided to use the tribunal for their own political purposes. Destabilizing Lebanon for them is nothing. They just want to drag the Hezbollah into a sectarian warfare inside Lebanon. This is why I said it is time to finish off this tribunal.

MAURA CONNELLY, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon: Well, they make these — these allegations that it — the tribunal is a U.S.-Israeli tool, just as they have engaged in any number of other criticisms, attempting to undermine the tribunal process. I mean, there is — there is no real legitimacy to those allegations that they make.

KIRA KAY: Maura Connelly is the United States ambassador to Lebanon.

MAURA CONNELLY: We have — we have supported the tribunal because we feel it’s important that somebody speak up for what the — the ultimate objective of the tribunal is, which is to bring justice to Lebanon.

KIRA KAY: Connelly reiterates that the U.S. is deeply opposed to Hezbollah playing a larger role in Lebanon.

MAURA CONNELLY: If the government’s program, if the government’s policies are controlled by Hezbollah, then obviously we will be at odds with that government.

KIRA KAY: But Walid Jumblatt chose to throw his support to Hezbollah last week, and formed a new parliamentary majority that toppled Saad Hariri’s government. Angry supporters of Hariri took to the streets, blocking roads and forcing the Lebanese army to restore order.

And, for the protesters, the tribunal remains the only hope for their country.

MAN: Without tribunal, you will never have rule of law. If we can’t practice justice in our country, then we will never be a true country.

KIRA KAY: More upheaval may still be to come once the indictments become public in a few weeks.

PAUL SALEM: It’s possible that they could be in a way very minor indictments, said a few people, low-level operatives somewhere, did this. In that case, it would be fairly easy to get over it. On the other hand, if the indictments are very convincing and very solid and indict high figures in Hezbollah, it could be a very, very decisive and dangerous moment.

KIRA KAY: Lebanon, still fragile from decades of civil war, now waits to see if an international search for justice will finally help end its political violence or plunge the country further into chaos.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kira Kay’s story is part of our partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.