Who killed Hariri?

As the U.N. prepares to present its findings on the assassination of Lebanon's former P.M., evidence increasingly points to a pro-Syrian group.

By Brian Whitaker
Published March 22, 2005 2:22PM (EST)

Even now, there is a daily trickle of sightseers who come to gaze at the scene of devastation. Behind metal barriers, guarded by security forces, lines of cars that happened to be parked at the time of the explosion remain in place, some battered, some unscathed, some covered in plastic sheeting, others covered in grime. Five weeks after the Valentine's Day explosion that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 17 others, the spot where he died is cordoned off.

The scene has become the focal point for two competing inquiries seeking clues that may identify the killers who unwittingly stirred mass protests that have astonished the Arab world. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will present the findings of United Nations investigators later this week, and they are likely to challenge the initial theory that Hariri was killed by a suicide car bomber.

The balance of evidence appears to point to the explosion having been caused by a bomb under the road -- a method that some analysts are suggesting points conclusively to Syrian involvement. In Beirut, though, the pro-Syrian authorities prefer to focus on a possible Islamist connection, in particular a white van that was captured on the closed-circuit television cameras of a nearby bank. Another camera, at the Phoenicia Hotel, which might have had a better view of what happened, went out of service a couple of weeks before the blast and repairing it proved unusually difficult.

The Lebanese have been reluctant investigators from the start. Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud was eager to fill in the bomb site, reasphalt the road and get the diverted traffic moving again as soon as possible. It was only when the Interior Ministry intervened that he had second thoughts.

The U.N. report may also give the first official indications of whether the Lebanese tried to cover up what happened. In the absence of hard information, theories about what happened have been highly politicized, with the pro-Syrians advocating an Islamist car bomb, while the anti-Syrian opposition suspects a meticulously prepared underground explosion.

There are several pointers to a bomb placed under the road. One is that workmen dug a hole there a few days before. Another is that the blast appears to have traveled along the sewers, damaging pipework in a building nearby. Whatever the actual method, making a bomb to kill Hariri needed careful planning and a lot of expertise.

His Mercedes was similar to one that had ensured the survival of Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, in a bomb attack. It was heavily armored with a titanium-steel alloy and also had an electronic jamming system designed to frustrate a remote-controlled detonation as well as disable mobile phones in the area.

Theories circulating in Beirut are that an underground bomb must have been triggered by wire from nearby, or alternatively that Hariri's electronic defenses were sabotaged so that the bomb could be triggered remotely.

In accordance with security advice, Hariri varied the routes of his journeys in the city, but there were only a limited number of roads he could choose. Normally he would pass the assassination spot once or twice in a fortnight, an associate said. If the bomb was indeed planted underground, it was only a matter of watching and waiting.

Shortly after noon on Feb. 14, Najib Friji, the U.N.'s press spokesman in Beirut, was meeting in the Place de l'Etoile cafe with a few Arab journalists to talk about a forthcoming visit to the region by Terje Roed Larsen, the U.N. envoy charged with trying to implement Security Council Resolution 1559, aimed at ending Syrian influence in Lebanon. Hariri, who had been in the Parliament building nearby, joined the discussion, bantering with the journalists. Five minutes after leaving the cafe he was dead.

Hariri had not always been an enemy of Damascus. As prime minister, he had found ways of coexisting with the unwelcome Syrian influence. He sometimes extended his financial largess to Syrian officials, and he got on well with the Syrian vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam. After his death, Khaddam -- a fellow Sunni Muslim -- visited Beirut to pay respects to Hariri's family, but avoided the funeral for fear of being lynched.

Sometime last year, Hariri's patience with Syria finally snapped. The moment was probably last August when he had an "inspiration" -- the Lebanese euphemism for a summons to Damascus -- and was told that the presidential term of Lahoud, which was due to expire in November, had to be extended. Hariri was furious, but decided to play along, voting in Parliament for a constitutional amendment that gave Lahoud three more years in office.

Just 24 hours before the parliamentary vote in Beirut, however, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 1559, which called for all foreign troops to leave Lebanon. The Syrians were convinced that Hariri had instigated 1559 by way of revenge -- and they may have been right in that. He was a close friend of French President Jacques Chirac, and France, along with the United States, was the main driving force behind the resolution.

By now, Hariri was moving more and more into the anti-Syrian camp. With parliamentary elections scheduled for May, he had also made another fateful decision. By long-established custom, Lebanese political groupings were expected to accept Syrian-approved candidates on their electoral lists, but Hariri had decided that this time he not only would refuse to accept them but also would encourage other groups to do the same.

As far as Damascus was concerned, his defiance had gone much too far, and he began to receive warnings from various quarters that his life was in danger, along with that of Walid Jumblatt, the anti-Syrian Druze leader.

Hariri and Jumblatt met urgently to discuss what they should do. To ensure the survival of the Lebanese opposition, they agreed that one of them had to leave the country. Jumblatt offered to stay behind on the grounds that he was more dispensable, but for Hariri it was already too late to escape.

Brian Whitaker

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