How justice for Rafiq Hariri's killers could help the Middle East

Thursday, January 20, 2011; 8:24 PM

LIKE OTHER international courts, the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been at best a slow and weak instrument of justice - but it may be the strongest card held by the United States and its allies in a crucial power struggle with Syria and Iran. On Monday, the tribunal's prosecutor delivered a sealed indictment against suspects in the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The indictment is widely believed to name senior officials of the Hezbollah movement, the Shiite political party and the heavily armed militia. Hezbollah withdrew from the Lebanese government last week, causing its collapse; it has the military strength to seize control of Beirut at any time. But if it is not able to stop the tribunal, both it and Iran could suffer a significant political setback.

Hariri, a Sunni billionaire who led the reconstruction of Lebanon after its civil war, was widely revered in the country and respected around the region. Convincing evidence that the massive car bomb that killed him and 22 others was planted with the help of Hezbollah could badly damage a group that claims its militancy and massive arsenal is directed entirely at Israel. That evidence could be laid out at a trial in the Netherlands this year or next. That is why Hezbollah has been seeking for months to force the government headed by the slain man's son, Saad Hariri, to renounce the tribunal, which is a hybrid that includes Lebanese judges and is partly funded by Lebanon.

Saad Hariri so far has refused, and negotiations between the Saudi and Syrian governments to broker a compromise have failed. That has destabilized Lebanon's delicate balance between pro-Western factions and those favoring Iran and Syria and prompted talk of a new civil war. Hezbollah, which lost Lebanon's past two elections, often gets it way through the threat of force, and it may be able to intimidate the Lebanese parliament into replacing Mr. Hariri with a prime minister who will do its bidding or force Mr. Hariri to back down.

The Obama administration has rightly encouraged Mr. Hariri to stand his ground. President Obama met with the prime minister last week, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been arguing that Lebanon need not choose between stability and justice. Neither Mr. Hariri nor the United States has the capacity to disarm Hezbollah or to end the threat it poses to Lebanon, Israel and the broader Middle East. By insisting that the tribunal proceed, however, the United States and its allies have the opportunity to expose the movement's homicidal terrorism, directed at fellow Arabs and Muslims, and its dependence on the Syrian and Iranian dictatorships. That's an outcome worth taking risks for.

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