U.N. Report Sees Syrian Involvement in Hariri's Death

By Robin Wright and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 21, 2005

A U.N. investigation has implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese officials in the assassination of Lebanon's leading reformer in a move that U.S. and European officials expect will generate new international pressure on the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.

In blunt language, the report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis concluded that the Valentine's Day bombing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security forces."

The report faulted Damascus for failing to fully cooperate with the probe and cited several officials, including Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa for attempting to mislead the investigation by providing false or inaccurate statements. Nevertheless, Mehlis said many leads now point directly to Syrian security officials.

The findings have been eagerly awaited by U.S. and European officials. Along with a second U.N. report on Lebanon due in days, key members of the Security Council hope to use the findings to increase pressure on the Assad government to end years of meddling in Lebanon and to generally change its behavior both at home and throughout the region, including ending support for extremist groups.

Mehlis concluded that the complex assassination plot involved several months of preparation and was conducted by a sophisticated group with "considerable resources and capabilities." Although the primary motive was political, some of the perpetrators may have been motivated by issues involving fraud, corruption and money laundering, he added.

Syrian officials have repeatedly denied any role in Hariri's slaying. Earlier this week, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha said, "We are absolutely categoric in saying we had nothing to do with Hariri." Messages to Syrian officials in Washington and at the United Nations were not returned last night.

But Mehlis said the slaying followed a "growing conflict" between Hariri and senior Syrian officials, including Assad. Tensions came to a head during a 10-to-15-minute meeting between the two men on Aug. 26, 2004. The Syrian leader informed Hariri that he wanted to extend for three years the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Damascus, in defiance of the Lebanese constitution -- a move Hariri firmly opposed.

Mehlis's report included excerpts of interviews and statements about the meeting, including several by Hariri's associates and his son, alleging that the Syrian president threatened Hariri if he opposed the plan. Saad Hariri said his father told him that Assad said: "This extension is to happen, or else I will break Lebanon over your head."

In a conversation between Hariri and a Syrian deputy foreign minister tape-recorded on Feb. 1, the former prime minister recalled the meeting with Assad as "the worst day of my life." Hariri then told the Syrian official that Lebanon would no longer be ruled from Syria.

Walid Mouallem, the Syrian official and a former ambassador to Washington, warned Hariri that Syrian security services had him cornered and not to "take things lightly," according testimony given to the commission. Two weeks later, Hariri was dead.

When the commission tried to follow up these leads, Syria refused to provide substantive information, Mehlis reported. Assad refused to be interviewed. And interviews conducted last month produced "uniform answers" that contradicted the weight of evidence, he added.

The commission cited one witness's testimony that a white Mitsubishi with a tarpaulin over its flatbed was used as the bomb carrier and crossed into Lebanon from Syria three weeks before the attack. It was driven by a Syrian army colonel, the report said. The day before the bombing, the same witness said he drove a Syrian officer to the St. George area of Beirut on a "reconnaissance exercise" -- in the area where the assassination took place.

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