Syrian Ex-Official Says Assad Threatened Hariri

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 31, 2005

JERUSALEM, Dec. 31 -- Syria's former vice president said in a television interview Friday that President Bashar Assad threatened former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in the months before Hariri's assassination and that the sophisticated operation to kill him could not have been carried out on the authority of only one agency.

"Hariri was subjected to many threats from Syria," Abdul Halim Khaddam, who resigned the vice presidency in June after two decades as a confidant of the Assad family, told al-Arabiya television in an interview from Paris. "Dangerous things were said."

Khaddam stopped short of accusing Assad of personal involvement in the decision to kill Hariri on Feb. 14 in Beirut. But he said that "in principle, no government body in Syria, be it a security apparatus or otherwise, can single-handedly make this decision."

He added: "This is a big operation with an apparatus behind it, not individuals. What apparatus? That is what the probe will reveal."

Khaddam's comments suggesting the participation of senior Syrian officials in Hariri's slaying were among the most pointed yet from a figure of his former stature within Syria's ruling Baath Party. Assad has denied Syrian involvement, saying Hariri's death harmed Syrian interests.

Hariri, a self-made billionaire who entered Lebanon's fractious political scene in the midst of its 15-year civil war, was killed along with 22 others when a bomb exploded on Beirut's waterfront drive as his motorcade passed. The assassination set off weeks of angry street demonstrations in the Lebanese capital, in which protesters accused Syria of planning the slaying and demanded that it withdraw the thousands of troops it had maintained in Lebanon for nearly three decades.

The last Syrian soldiers left Lebanon in April. But as a U.N. investigation into Hariri's assassination progressed, bombings targeting prominent anti-Syrian journalists and other critics of Assad's government shook the country.

Already, the inquiry has implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the assassination. In an interim report to the Security Council in October, chief investigator Detlev Mehlis concluded that the bombing "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 also accused Assad, who effectively inherited Syria's presidency following the death in June 2000 of his father, Hafez Assad, of failing to cooperate with investigators. Assad agreed recently to allow U.N. investigators to question five officials, including Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, his brother-in-law and chief of military intelligence.

Khaddam was an important adviser to Hafez Assad and later to Bashar Assad before he resigned at the Baath Party congress in June. He visited Hariri's grieving family the day after the slaying, calling the assassination an "earthquake" that would reshape Syrian and Lebanese politics.

Despite his public break with Assad's government, which he attributed to internal corruption and the slow pace of reform, Khaddam said in the interview Friday that he left Syria on good terms with Assad, although the two had "differences of opinion."

In the fall of 2004, under stiff Syrian pressure, the Lebanese parliament voted to extend the term of its pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. Hariri, then Lebanon's prime minister, initially opposed the term extension but later endorsed it publicly after an August 2004 meeting with Assad in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Hariri later told friends and political allies that he had been threatened by Assad during the encounter.

Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Charaa, said this week that Hariri lied in saying Assad threatened him. But in Friday's interview, Khaddam said Assad told Hariri in the meeting: "You want to bring a new president to Lebanon. . . . I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision."

He said Hariri left the meeting with "high blood pressure and his nose bleeding."

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