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Lebanon's Hariri takes pragmatic approach in seeking unity

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:40 PM

BEIRUT - Since Saad Hariri was thrown into Lebanese politics after his father's assassination five years ago, he has worked to keep the politically and religiously fractious country unified. Now the question is whether the pragmatic approach he's employed as prime minister will be enough to hold Lebanon together.

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In the past year, Hariri has tried to maintain good ties with his political enemies. He's kept together an unwieldy coalition that includes the Shiite militia group Hezbollah, which, according to leaks from an international investigation, is likely to be fingered in his father's killing.

Realizing that no Lebanese leader can survive without good ties to the Syrian leadership, Hariri traveled five times to Damascus and recanted an allegation that Syria was behind his father's death.

On Saturday, he is set to fly to Tehran to strengthen ties with Hezbollah's sponsor, Iran, firming up a bilateral relationship that rattles the West.

"What I try to focus on," Hariri said in a rare interview in Beirut, "is how to keep the country intact, how to keep the unity of the Lebanese."

That task has become particularly challenging as a United Nations-backed tribunal prepares to issue indictments in his father's killing. Hezbollah has threatened to use violence if its members are accused and has pressured Hariri to stop backing the tribunal. So far Hariri has stood firm - even as some Lebanese have counseled that he should not seek justice for his father at the expense of Lebanese stability.

"I'm seeking justice for the country," Hariri said when asked about the dilemma at his elegant new residential and work complex, which is outfitted with a gym, pool and cigar room. "Nothing's going to return my father to me."

After former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was killed by a car bomb in February 2005, his son - who had not been involved in politics before - rose to the head of the pro-Western March 14 movement and, in elections last year, became prime minister.

Now the tall, fit, 40-year-old billionaire spends his days trying to navigate messy Middle Eastern politics and stay in power. Hariri - who speaks in a muted monotone - insists repeatedly that he can resolve Lebanon's internal differences through calm negotiation.

The problem is that the person with whom he most needs to work things out is Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, who has refused to meet with Hariri until he declares that the militant group had nothing to do with his father's assassination - and recently threatened to "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest Hezbollah members in the crime.

Hezbollah has portrayed the tribunal as a witch hunt. "Whoever thinks that the resistance will not defend itself and its honor against any accusation or attack by whatever means it finds appropriate . . . is mistaken," Nasrallah said in a televised appearance this month.

Despite that stance, Hariri remains supportive of the tribunal.

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