Already tense, Beirut shudders in WikiLeaks spotlight


The last thing Lebanon’s shaky political equilibrium needed was the jolt delivered by the WikiLeaks revelations. Tensions between the Syria- and Iran-backed Hizballah coalition and the Western- and Saudi Arabia–backed March 14 alliance led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri threaten to renew civil strife as the country awaits imminent indictments from an international tribunal in the 2005 murder of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Syria was initially blamed for the Valentine’s Day assassination of the Sunni Prime Minister who had begun to push back against the Syrian overlords who had exercised de facto control over Lebanon since the end of its civil war in 1990. Hariri’s death in a massive one-ton truck bomb in the heart of Beirut ruptured Sunni, Christian and Druze acquiescence to decades-long Syrian hegemony, and the resulting street protests and Western diplomatic pressure compelled Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon that summer. Only the Shi’ites, led by Hizballah, continued to side with Syria and refused to blame it for the billionaire politician’s death. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals suspected of involvement were arrested in August 2005 and imprisoned for nearly four years without charge by the tribunal, before being released in April 2009. (Watch video of Hizballah’s war theme park.)

Now, the speculation is that the tribunal will indict members of Hizballah. The party has been trying to torpedo the international body for years, claiming that it is under Israeli influence, but has lately upped the stakes. Hizballah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah expects members of his group to be indicted, but has vehemently denied any involvement by Hizballah in the killing, warning that the movement will “cut off the hand” of anybody who tries to arrest its partisans. Nasrallah blames Israel for Hariri’s death.

Enter WikiLeaks

Beirut’s Daily Star reports that leaked cables from the U.S. embassy in Beirut, obtained by the paper but not posted on the WikiLeaks site, indicate that the chief U.N. investigator had told U.S. diplomats in 2006 that there was little evidence against the four generals, but political reasons prevented their immediate release. He “explained that, if any sort of international legal standards were applied, the four generals would be released immediately. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that doing so would be a political disaster for Lebanon,” a cable on the meeting reportedly read.

Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, who succeeded the German Detlev Mehlis as lead investigator in the case, also reportedly branded the testimony of three now discredited witnesses against the generals as “completely unreliable.”

Brammertz is reported also to have cast doubt on the Syrian government’s involvement early in his investigation, yet Damascus remained — and, for some, remains — the prime suspect. “Syria has five different state security apparatuses. I can’t imagine that an order came down from the President and worked its way through all the security services until they killed Hariri,” Brammertz is quoted as saying. “If anything, you probably had one security service involved, and the order came from on high — and how high, we’ll have to figure out.”

Hizballah’s spokesman, Ibrahim Moussawi, told TIME from Beirut that the party wasn’t prepared to comment on the WikiLeaks cables at this stage. But it has made its views clear on another scandal, related to this whodunit, that has seen dozens of Lebanese netted over the past few years for allegedly collaborating with Israel. Lebanon and Israel remain officially at war. Included in this bunch of alleged traitors are several high-ranking employees at one of the country’s two mobile-telephone networks. The international tribunal has extensively analyzed phone records before and after the blast to identify potential networks and associations of those involved. According to an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the telecoms analysis identified the hit squad that had carried out the murder, or at least the phones they had been carrying at the time.

Hizballah has pointed to the spy scandal as proof that Israel has infiltrated Lebanon’s telecommunications network, suggesting therefore that phone evidence is tainted. As recently as last week, the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon said it was investigating a blast reportedly caused by the detonation of an Israeli device spying on Hizballah’s private telecommunications network. The movement’s separate fiber-optic system was discovered by Lebanese authorities back in August 2007, an event also documented in a 2008 WikiLeaks cable published by the left-leaning Arabic Beirut daily Al Akhbar.

The U.S. cable quoted by Al Akhbar and Britain’s Guardian says that information about Hizballah’s network, including maps, was passed on to the U.S, Saudi Arabia, France and others. According to the report, Marwan Hamade, then Telecommunications Minister, had told U.S. diplomats that the fiber-optic network was “a strategic victory for Iran since it creates an important Iranian outpost in Lebanon, bypassing Syria.” The cable continued, “The value for Hizballah is the final step in creating a nation state. Hizballah now has an army and weapons; a television station; an education system; hospitals; social services; a financial system; and a telecommunications system.”

Hamade denies the claims, dismissing the reported cable as “full of fabrications.” Beirut, meanwhile, is bracing for the indictments, and for the release of more WikiLeaks cables — there are reportedly over 3,000 that deal with Lebanon. And in the tinderbox of Lebanese politics, nobody likes surprises.

By: By Rania Abouzeid




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