UNITED NATIONS, March 24 -- Syrian President Bashar Assad threatened former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri with "physical harm" last summer if Hariri challenged Assad's dominance over Lebanese political life, contributing to a climate of violence that led to the Feb. 14 slayings of Hariri and 19 others, according to testimony in a report released Thursday by a U.N. fact-finding team.
The report, which calls for an international investigation into Hariri's death, describes an August meeting in Damascus at which Assad ordered the Lebanese billionaire to support amending Lebanon's constitution, according to testimony from "various" sources who discussed the meeting with Hariri. The amendment, approved Sept. 3, allowed Emile Lahoud, the Syrian-backed Lebanese president, to remain in office for three more years.
Lebanon FAQ: Frequently asked questions about the political situation in Lebanon and the country's relationship with Syria.
Assad said that "Lahoud should be viewed as his personal representative" in Lebanon and that "opposing him is tantamount to opposing Assad himself," the report states. Assad then warned that he "would rather break Lebanon over the heads of" Hariri and influential Druze political leader Walid Jumblatt "than see his word in Lebanon broken."
The U.N. team, which was headed by Ireland's deputy police commissioner, Peter FitzGerald, charged that Syrian-controlled Lebanese authorities exhibited a "distinct lack of commitment" to conducting a credible investigation into Hariri's assassination by tampering with evidence and failing to pursue promising leads.
FitzGerald stopped short of accusing Syria and its Lebanese allies of detonating the 2,200-pound bomb that killed Assad's major political rival in Lebanon. But he charged that Syria "bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded" Hariri's assassination.
In the report, FitzGerald said that the international investigative team "would need executive authority to carry out its interrogations, searches and other relevant tasks." But he added that it was "more than doubtful" that an international investigation into the crime could succeed as long as the leadership in Lebanon's Syrian-backed security establishment remains in power.
The 20-page report, presented to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday afternoon by Secretary General Kofi Annan, represents the most damning official account of Syria's role in Lebanon. Annan phoned Assad and Lahoud to warn them of the report's findings.
Syria's U.N. envoy, Fayssal Mekdad, questioned the need for an international investigation into the killing, saying that Lebanese officials were capable of doing the job. Mekdad also denied that Assad and other Syrian authorities had played any role in Hariri's death. "I assure you we don't deal this way," Mekdad told reporters.
The crisis in Lebanon has unfolded against mounting political resistance to Syrian dominance in the former French colony. Syria, which first sent troops into Lebanon in 1975, has long feared a strong Lebanese opposition movement. Members of Assad's ruling Baath Party have economic and political interests in Lebanon, and Hariri consistently voiced opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Syria's drive to amend Lebanon's constitution last year fueled stiff opposition from Hariri and other opposition figures seeking to gain power. Hariri and his party ultimately supported the extension of Lahoud's presidency. But the popular Lebanese politician and businessman subsequently resigned in protest and played a role in securing support from French President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend, and the United States to adopt a Sept. 2 Security Council resolution demanding that Syria withdraw its 20,000 troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.
"The Syrian leadership held Hariri personally responsible for the adoption of the resolution," FitzGerald said sources told him. "Clearly, Mr. Hariri's assassination took place on the backdrop of his power struggle with Syria."
The report says that Hariri's government security detail, which included 40 agents, was reduced to eight after he resigned as prime minister, despite continued threats against his life. "The Lebanese security apparatus failed to provide proper protection for Mr. Hariri," FitzGerald said.
The report says that Hariri was killed as his convoy passed over a massive explosive placed on the road outside the Hotel Saint-Georges in central Beirut.
Following the attack, Lebanese authorities failed to properly secure the site and cleared it of key evidence, including the six vehicles in Hariri's convoy, according to the report.
The police failed to shut down a broken water main that flooded the crime scene, washing away important evidence.
"Important evidence was either removed or destroyed without record," FitzGerald said.
The report also charges that Lebanese investigators neglected to trace a "suspect" white pickup truck that slowed down at the crime scene in the minutes before the explosion. Nor did they interview potential witnesses, a failure that amounted to "gross negligence."
FitzGerald cast doubt over reports that an alleged Lebanese militant, Ahmad Abu Adas, 22, who claimed responsibility for the assassination, carried it out. Adas described himself as a member of a previously unknown militant group, Nasra and Jihad Group in Greater Syria, in a videotaped confession broadcast by the Arab language network Al-Jazeera.
FitzGerald said that a "single individual or small terrorist group" lacked the capacity to carry out such an attack, which required "considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support."