Hezbollah poised to ride out indictments

Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters, hold up Assad and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasralah portraits during a demonstration to show their support for their president, in Damascus, Syria. (AP)

In a country with a history of scores left unsettled, Hezbollah is in a strong position to ride out an indictment accusing a high-ranking member of one of the most dramatic political assassinations in the Middle East.

The group has spent the past year laying the groundwork for thwarting any move to implement the all-but-inevitable indictment in the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It has warned to "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest its members and repeatedly cast doubt on tribunal's investigation.

The work appears to have paid off.

Since the Netherlands-based court released the indictments Thursday, there has been no real sign that Lebanese authorities are willing to arrest the four suspects, including Hezbollah militant Mustafa Badreddine.

To do so, they would have to directly confront the Iran- and Syria-backed group that is firmly in control of the Lebanese state.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah planned a speech Saturday to address the indictment.

The most prominent of the four people named in the indictment is Badreddine, who appears to have a storied history of militancy.

He is suspected of building the powerful bomb that blew up the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans, mostly Marines, according to a federal law enforcement official and a book "Jawbreaker," by Gary Berntsen, a former official who ran the Hezbollah task force at the CIA.

He also is the brother-in-law of the late Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh and is suspected of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait that killed five people.

Hezbollah has always had serious muscle, boasting a guerrilla force that is better armed and stronger than the national army.

But the group has amassed unprecedented political clout in the government, having toppled the previous administration in January when then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri — the slain man's son — refused to renounce the tribunal investigating his father's death.

The new premier, Najib Mikati, was Hezbollah's pick for the post. He issued a vague promise Thursday that Lebanon would respect international resolutions as long as they did not threaten the civil peace.

The ambiguous wording leaves ample room to brush aside the arrest warrants if street battles are looming. The Cabinet is packed with Hezbollah allies, so there is little enthusiasm within the current leadership to press forward with the case.

And the indictments do indeed threaten to ignite fresh violence in Lebanon. In the six years since Hariri's death, the investigation has sharpened the country's sectarian divisions — Rafik Hariri was one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leaders, while Hezbollah is a Shiite group. It has also heightened other intractable debates, including the question of the role of Hezbollah — and its vast arsenal, which opponents want dismantled.

Walid Jumblatt, a Hezbollah ally and leader of the tiny Druse sect, warned Friday that the indictments could lead to new civil strife in Lebanon and painted the case as a matter of justice versus stability.

"As much as justice is important for the martyrs and the wounded, so too civil peace and stability is the hoped-for future," said Jumblatt, whose own father was a victim of a political assassination in Lebanon and who was once an ardent supporter of the tribunal before switching alliances. "Civil peace is more important than anything else."

He pointed to widespread fears that the case could further divide the country, which has been recovering from decades of bloodshed, including a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and more recent sectarian battles.

The younger Hariri and his allies, now relegated to the opposition, and the international court will likely push for action against the four. But there is little they can do to force the government to do so.

Lebanese authorities have until the end of July to serve the indictments on suspects or execute arrest warrants. If they fail, the court's recourse is to publish the indictment. Details in the indictment about the investigation into the killing — so far kept under wraps might in theory prove embarrassing to Hezbollah, but the group is unlikely to be severely hurt by them.

While Jumblatt appeared to be offering a stark choice — either turn a blind eye to a dastardly crime, or run the risk of chaos — Hezbollah's leader has taken another tack.

Nasrallah has worked tirelessly to convince the Lebanese that the tribunal is not fit to deliver justice. For more than a year, he has gone on a media offensive against the tribunal, taking nearly every opportunity to call it biased, politicized and a tool of archenemy Israel.

He also said early on that he knew Hezbollah would be accused of the crime, a pre-emptive strike that dampened the impact of Thursday's indictment and bolstered his credentials as the man in charge in Lebanon.


Print Email