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    Middle East
     May 27, 2009
Finger-pointing riles Hezbollah
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Lebanon is abuzz over a report published in the German magazine Der Spiegel that said the international tribunal for the murder of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri will soon point fingers at Hezbollah.

"Spiegel has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents, that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn," said the report. Hezbollah called on the tribunal to act with force against what was published in the magazine, calling it "lies".

A spokeswoman for the tribunal added, "We do not address speculation. The only information that is reliable is provided by the

 

prosecutor himself."

The magazine reported that these findings had been kept secret by the tribunal, which opened last March in the Netherlands, yet added, "Investigators now believe Hezbollah was behind the Hariri murder," and that a "special force" from Hezbollah "planned and executed the diabolical attack" in February 2005.

Let us look at the "evidence" put forth by the article's author, Erich Follath:
1. The eight cellular phone lines that were pinpointed to the murder on the day leading up to the attack, were all bought on the same day in the northern city of Tripoli. They were used exclusively for communication among the assassins, except for one, which the Spiegel article claimed, was used by an assassin to telephone his girlfriend. The rest were not used after the attack.
A second network of cell phone lines, the article added, numbering 20, was described as "being in proximity to the first eight phones". The article said, "According to the Lebanese security forces, all of the numbers involved apparently belonged to the 'operational arm' of Hezbollah."

2. The man who telephoned his girlfriend, the article said, "is believed to be Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, from the town of Rumin, a Hezbollah member who had completed training courses in Iran. Ghamlush was identified as the buyer of the mobile phones. He has since disappeared, and perhaps, is no longer alive."

3. Ghamlush's "recklessness" led to whom the magazine described as the "mastermind" of the attack, Hajj Salim (no last name) from the town of Nabatiyah, who it claimed was the "commander of the military wing of Hezbollah and lives in South Beirut".

Spiegel added that Salim headed the "Special Operational Unit" that reported directly to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and "General Kassim Sulaimani, their contact in Tehran". The report claims that Salim assumed the duties of Imad Mughniyeh, the veteran commander of Hezbollah who was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008. Mughniyeh's brother-in-law Mustapha Badr al-Din is now serving as his deputy.

4. The article said that Hezbollah obtained the Mitsubishi van which was used in the attack.

5. The assassination of Captain Wissam Eid, a Lebanese intelligence expert, in January 2008 is referred to in the article, which said "once again, there was evidence of involvement of the Hezbollah commando unit, just as there has been in each of more than a dozen attacks against prominent Lebanese in the last four years."

6. It claimed that Nasrallah saw Hariri as a rival because "the billionaire began to outstrip the revolutionary leader in terms of popularity ... Hariri was, in a sense, the alternative to Nasrallah".

Much of what was published as fact in the article is pure fabrication, recognizable as such by anybody familiar with the Lebanese group. First, the phone lines mentioned were bought by a Sunni group in Tripoli, and not Hezbollah, a fact that was stated by the first persecutor Detlev Mehlis and confirmed by all his successors, including the current Daniel Bellemare.

Let us keep in mind that if Hezbollah wanted to purchase the lines, it would not have sent certified Hezbollah members to do the job. Hezbollah has state-of-the art intelligence - evidenced by its 2006 war on Israel - and does not perform "reckless" jobs, certainly not having a member call a girlfriend from a phone number used to carry out an assassination of this magnitude.

Any professional assassin knows his ABCs, and leaving behind fingerprints is certainly not one of them. Additionally, the article provided no evidence that the lines were the property of the Lebanese group, only empty accusations. In Hezbollah, multiple marriages are not allowed - although they are accepted in Islam, because pillow talk usually lets men say things that should remain secret.

Hezbollah is so strict about this code that even "pleasure marriages", which are allowed in Shi'ite Islam, are also prohibited. Among other things, that explains why Hezbollah surprised Israel and the Americans in 2006 with its 33-day war; the group was clearly not infiltrated by spies and informers.

The so-called Hajj Salim is - until proven otherwise - a fictional character. The magazine does not say how the lines trace back to Hajj Salim, or where it got information that this man is now second-in-command of Hezbollah, succeeding Imad Mughniyeh. It provided no evidence about this man's connection to Nasrallah or the so-called Iranian official in Tehran. Nor did it mention how Hezbollah obtained the Mitsubishi, which, according to former persecutor Serge Brammertz, came out of a factory in Japan in 2002 (when the Hariri-Nasrallah honeymoon was at its peak), was stolen in Kanagawa in Japan in 2004, shipped to the Emirates, and transported to Tripoli in December 2004.

Hezbollah has never been involved in target killings inside Lebanon. Since its inception in 1982, it has focused on Israeli targets around the world and since Nasrallah came to office in the early 1990s, only on those inside Israel. The working relationship between Nasrallah and Hariri was strong - although they may have disagreed on what the future of Lebanon should look like. Never were they rivals, simply because they represented different constituencies.

But why now, and why Hezbollah, two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections in which Hezbollah is expected to score a smashing victory? The magazine quoted no sources, either from the tribunal or elsewhere, nor did it back its argument with any documents. As far as an ordinary reader is concerned, the information it provided is flawed, unless proven otherwise by the tribunal, or by the journalist Follath.

Someone could have provided him with false information, with the objective of wanting Hezbollah to look bad ahead of voting day. If the tribunal had any evidence about a Hezbollah connection, it would have revealed it and not released four army generals, who were all close to Hezbollah in 2005, a few weeks ago. Why would sources at the tribunal, or Lebanese security, leak the story to a German magazine, of all places, given their strict confidentiality regulations, since 2006?

In 2005, many speculated that either Syria - or Iran - was behind the assassination of Hariri. Both accusations were proven baseless by consecutive United Nations reports, which made no reference to Iran, and noted that Syria had been very cooperative in the probe. All stories about Syrian involvement, revealed in Mehlis' 2005 report, were dropped by his two successors, Brammertz and Bellemare.

One of the recently released generals, Jamil al-Sayyed, has even filed a lawsuit against Mehlis in France, accusing the German persecutor of having kept him behind bars for nearly four years with no evidence. Speaking to several Arab satellite networks, Sayyed recently said that Mehlis had asked him to get the Syrians to incriminate a Syrian official, and then have him commit suicide, in order to get the Lebanese generals off the hook and close the case against both Syria and the Lebanese general.

The Hariri case is becoming murkier and murkier. Some still believe Syria did it, while others point fingers at Israel. Some say that an Islamic cell, inspired by al-Qaeda, killed him in revenge for having signed execution warrants for their members while serving as prime minister. Some believe that Iran wanted to get rid of the man to empower Hezbollah. Others say the George W Bush administration did it, to frame the Syrians.

The Hariri tribunal has been mandated to work for three years, and was given a budget of US$56 million for the first year alone, with the UN paying 51% of the cost. The harshest sentence it can pass is life imprisonment. There has been a haunting silence from the tribunal's headquarters in Leidschendam in the Netherlands, right after the four generals were released, up till the Der Spiegel story.

Nasrallah has called on the tribunal to take strict measures against the German magazine for "publishing lies". The dramatic u-turn in testimonies from Mehlis to Bellemare, the lack of evidence against Syria, the release of the generals after four years of jail and the latest story all add big question marks on the issue of whether justice or political interests are being pursued.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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