The Bush administration on Thursday appealed to Secretary General Kofi Annan to use his influence to persuade a U.N. investigator to continue his probe into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri through next year or begin an immediate search for a replacement.
Detlev Mehlis, a renowned German anti-terrorism prosecutor, has told Annan that he intends to step down as chairman of the International Independent Investigation Commission on Dec. 15, when the panel's mandate is to expire. But senior Lebanese and U.N. officials said that the investigation into the Feb. 14 slaying of Hariri and 22 others will not be concluded by then and that they will ask the Security Council to extend the commission's mandate for as much as six more months.
Mehlis's departure will complicate a delicate investigation that has implicated senior Syrian and pro-Syrian security officials, including President Bashar Assad's younger brother, Maher, and his brother-in-law, Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, Syria's chief of military intelligence. It is also a potential setback for the Bush administration, which has sought to pressure Damascus to halt its support for terrorist activities in the Middle East.
"Commissioner Mehlis continues to provide exceptional service as head of the commission," U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said Thursday in a letter to Annan. "Should the government of Lebanon request the extension of the commission, our strong preference would be that Mr. Mehlis continue in his current capacity."
Bolton said he is "concerned that a wholesale change in the leadership of the commission would be exploited by the Syrian government to forestall their full and complete cooperation" with the investigation. He urged Annan to move quickly to determine whether Mehlis can be persuaded to stay. If not, Bolton pressed Annan to immediately begin looking for a successor to ensure continuity.
U.N. officials say that it is unlikely that Mehlis will remain, and that they have already begun searching for a replacement, probably another European who has experience investigating complex international terrorism cases.
Still, Mehlis's likely departure comes at a critical juncture in the U.N. investigation. His commission is to begin interviewing several Syrian officials, including the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazali, in Vienna next week. Mehlis then plans to question Shawkat, say U.S. and U.N. officials.
Annan appointed Mehlis in May to lead what was then expected to be a three-month criminal investigation. But the inquiry has already been extended once. Mehlis, who took leave from his job as Berlin's top anti-terrorism prosecutor, told Annan when he accepted the job that he could not stay more than six months. U.N. officials say he is eager to leave Beirut, where he lives under threat, and return to his family in Berlin.
Stephane Dujarric, Annan's chief spokesman, said the secretary general is trying to persuade Mehlis to play some role in the commission even if he leaves.
"Obviously, should the length of the commission be extended -- and we're not there yet, I'll remind you -- we would be very interested in having Mr. Mehlis remain associated with the work of the independent commission should it continue," Dujarric told reporters. "And so, on that, the secretary general and Mr. Mehlis are in contact."