Hezbollah Vows Defense in Inquiry
By Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri
The New York Times
January 16, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah’s leader warned Sunday that his Shiite Muslim movement would defend itself against indictments, expected soon from an international tribunal, naming its members in the assassination of a former prime minister, whose death plunged the country into the most prolonged crisis since the end of its 15-year civil war.
But in a speech that seemed aimed at defusing tension — or at least not escalating it — the leader, Hassan Nasrallah, defended the decision of Hezbollah and its allies to resign from a 14-month-old national unity government last week, leading to its collapse. And he insisted that the movement would adhere to the Constitution in forming a new government, a process that could take months and, as is often the case here, has already attracted the attention of opposing camps’ foreign patrons, the United States and Syria among them.
“We will not allow our reputation and our dignity to be tarnished, nor will we allow anyone to conspire against us,” Mr. Nasrallah said in an hourlong speech broadcast Sunday night. “We will act to defend our dignity, our existence and our reputation.”
For days, the speech was eagerly anticipated in a country facing a renewed confrontation between camps locked in a struggle that cuts across questions far outstripping its small size: the influence of the United States, Syria, Iran and others here; the power of Hezbollah; and the country’s posture toward Israel. The contest has simmered and flared since February 2005, when a bombing along Beirut’s seafront killed Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, and 22 others.
Last week marked another surge in tension when Hezbollah and its Christian allies withdrew from a government led by Mr. Hariri’s son, Saad, in a dispute over the international tribunal, which has divided the nation. Hezbollah supporters believe it is hopelessly compromised, little more than an American-Israeli tool to bludgeon the movement. Mr. Hariri’s supporters believe the vehemence of Hezbollah’s reaction only underlines its guilt in the assassination.
On Monday, prosecutors are expected to turn the indictments over to a judge at The Hague, though the charges may not be made public for two months or more.
Mr. Nasrallah, who appeared relaxed, rarely raising his voice as he does in more fiery speeches, said the movement would not be drenched “in Rafik Hariri’s blood.”
The crisis has played out in seemingly contradictory ways. In the streets of Beirut, many residents seem to look at the latest confrontation as theater, managed by a political elite that reaches consensus only after months of deadlock, the eruption of violence or the decisive intervention of foreign powers.
But the elite itself seemed frantic at times over the weekend, as talks began about the next government and, in particular, who would lead it — Mr. Hariri, backed by the United States, or a candidate backed by Hezbollah.
Mr. Nasrallah himself sent mixed messages, saying in the speech on Sunday that “Hariri and his team have established the fact that they cannot be trusted and are not reliable to help Lebanon or lead the country out of any impasse.” Then, at the end, he pointedly did not rule out Mr. Hariri’s return.
“Things are changing all the time,” said an adviser to Nabih Berri, the Parliament speaker and an ally of Hezbollah, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There are consultations, meetings, phone calls, and the situation is changing every hour.”
American officials have come out strongly in support of the tribunal, backing that Hezbollah’s leadership has cited as a reason for suspicion. They have urged Mr. Hariri not to back down, and on Sunday the American ambassador, Maura Connelly, met Mr. Hariri and another Lebanese lawmaker in what critics portrayed as aggressive American intervention in the formation of the next government.
The United States is not alone. To varying degrees, at various times, France, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Qatar and Turkey have all played a role in a country whose competing factions and tendency to deadlock have made it vulnerable to foreign meddling. (Syrian, Turkish and Qatari leaders are meeting in Damascus, Syria, on Monday for talks about the crisis.)
“The tribunal is an independent, international judicial process whose work is not subject to political influence — either from inside Lebanon or from outside,” Ms. Connelly said.
For months now, Hezbollah has sought to discredit the tribunal, pointing out that it took testimony from witnesses whose accounts later proved false. It has suggested that Israeli spy rings uncovered since 2008 — in particular, a cell blamed for espionage in the telecommunications sector — could have falsified records investigators used as evidence.
“We describe the tribunal as an American and Israeli tool,” Mr. Nasrallah said.
President Michel Suleiman will begin consultations on the new government on Monday, a sideshow to the spectacle that riveted much of the country Sunday night. For the second day, an opposition television station broadcast leaked testimony from the tribunal that, in the first segment, caught Mr. Hariri in a lie over his knowledge of witnesses who turned out to have lied. The second amounted to a freewheeling take by Mr. Hariri on everyone from President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to his father’s aides.
He called Lebanese officials “stooges” and the Syrian president an “idiot.” He casually talked about his father bribing Syrian officials in Lebanon.
The disclosures will probably do little to shift opinion about Mr. Hariri. Lebanon’s crises tend to deepen sentiments rather than change them. Even if it opposes Mr. Hariri, Hezbollah may have difficulty in finding an alternative, given his support within Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, one of the country’s largest.
“There is an attempt to bring Hariri back because whether we want it or not, whether some like it or hate it, he represents the majority,” said Boutros Harb, a lawmaker allied with Mr. Hariri.