Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said yesterday that Lebanon's president, a Syrian ally, should resign following the indictment of four top intelligence and security officials in the Feb. 14 assassination of the country's leading reformer.
In an interview, Siniora also said that President Emile Lahoud had been imposed on Lebanon by Syria, and that the majority of Lebanese, including his own Christian community, now oppose him.
"Personally, I believe after the indictment of these four people, he should resign," Siniora said. Lahoud's acceptance within Lebanon is now "limited," he said.
But Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, also cautioned that he is not in a position to impose his opinion on Lahoud and does not want to alienate Lebanon's Christian community in a country where the political system depends on a delicate balance among 17 religious sects. And under the constitution, he still must cooperate with the president. "My thinking is one thing; his decision is something else," Siniora added.
But he pointed to the example of then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who resigned after one of his closest aides was exposed as an East German spy who had provided intelligence to the communist government.
Last month, information gathered by an ongoing U.N. investigation into the bombing that killed former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 19 staff members led a Lebanese prosecutor to indict the four military and intelligence officials, two of whom are generals. All four are aligned with Syria.
Lebanon's president has become a symbol of Syria's 29-year domination of Lebanon. Under pressure from Damascus, Lebanon's Syrian-controlled parliament last year extended Lahoud's six-year term for another three years despite widespread public opposition led by Hariri. Hariri's subsequent assassination triggered the Cedar Revolution that led Damascus to withdraw about 14,000 troops in April and led to elections in May for a more independent parliament.
Siniora, who met yesterday with Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, said Lebanon and world leaders are now discussing whether the trial of the four should be in Lebanon or elsewhere. An important factor will be whether there are further indictments either of Lebanese citizens or officials from other countries, he said. The outcome of the U.N. investigation led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who took his investigation to Syria for the first time this week, is due by the end of October.
Siniora said he would support a new U.N. resolution to ensure that those charged with involvement in the Hariri assassination are brought to justice. "We have to bring these people, irrespective of which group they belong to or to which party or entity they belong . . . not [just] because they have committed a crime against Hariri, which is a very big crime," he said. "We have to give a lesson to anyone who may think later on of committing such a crime again in Lebanon."
The U.S. and European governments are considering proposing a U.N. resolution to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account, according to Western diplomats.
Although he noted that he is in "no position" to make a formal accusation, Siniora said there is now a "wide perception" in Lebanon that Syria had "some sort of involvement" in the slaying. He called the indictments a "very important" turning point that "put an end" to the type of government that allows outside domination.
In two visits to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Siniora said, he made clear that Lebanon now wants a relationship based on "mutual respect" instead of domination. He said in the interview that Syria now needs to recognize that "the Middle East is changing" and that every government in the region, including Syria's, must adapt to new political realities.
On the sensitive issue of Hezbollah's disarmament, Siniora said there is now an "implicit understanding" that the Iran-backed Shiite militia "will implement self-restraint." U.N. resolution 1559, co-sponsored by the United States and France to force Syria out of Lebanon, calls for Hezbollah to lay down its arms, which is now the major outstanding issue.
Siniora said that Lebanon's fragile democracy is based on consensus and that "further dialogue" is needed to reach an agreement. "This is very important, because we want to safeguard what we have already achieved," he said, "and we don't want to go into dissension among the Lebanese," who fought a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. He also noted that many major decisions are awaiting the final Mehlis report. U.S. and European officials say they expect the report to be a second turning point that will trigger significant political change.
On Iraq, Siniora said the withdrawal of U.S. troops would not be wise for the United States or for stability in the Arab world, but he called for greater emphasis on internal dialogue as an alternative, "because what is happening there is a slaughterhouse."