Lebanon marks 7th anniversary of Hariri assassination

Saad Hariri says Future Bloc is moderate, urges practical steps to stop war on Syrians

Lebanese PM Mikati asserts Lebanon can’t get out of its Arab affiliation

Soldiers deployed on borders amidst expectations Syrian army could enter northern Lebanon

People gathered in Beirut's Nejmeh Square Tuesday to mark the 7th anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, police said.

As part of the commemoration, a group of supporters retraced the steps of the slain politician to the spot where a massive car bomb explosion killed Hariri and 22 others in 2005, The Daily Star of Beirut reported.

Hariri's assassination sparked mass demonstrations against Syria's presence in Lebanon that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

In June, a special tribunal indicted four Hezbollah members for involvement in the killings.

Hezbollah denied any of its members took part in the assassination and refused to hand over the suspects.

In addition to the Nejmeh Square gathering, wreaths were placed at Hariri's tomb by a delegation from the Progressive Socialist Party.

Lebanon marked Tuesday's seventh anniversary of Hariri’s assassination as a ground-breaking international tribunal investigating his death threatens to reignite the country's smoldering sectarian divisions.

Indeed, the tribunal has become highly politicized and sits at the center of what some observers call "a ticking time bomb" amid the political upheaval convulsing the Arab world, in particular the revolution in neighboring Syria aimed at bringing down the Damascus regime that so covets Lebanon.

The tribunal, mandated by the United Nations, has little to show for a seven-year effort to bring Hariri's killers to justice and the sectarian tensions surrounding its mission have risen accordingly.

The assassination of Hariri and 22 other people in a massive suicide bombing in central Beirut was, even by the murderous standards of the Middle East, a landmark event.

The tribunal indicted four members of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization in June. But the powerful Shiite group denies any role in killing Hariri, a member of the rival Sunni sect, on Feb. 14, 2005, with a 2.5-ton bomb.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah refuses to hand over the suspects, who include two senior military chiefs, and he's vowed to "cut off the hands" of anyone seeking to apprehend them.

Heightening the perils ahead, sources at the tribunal, based in The Hague, say another Hezbollah member is likely to be indicted soon.

But the way things stand that suspect is as unlikely to stand in the dock as the other four. All will be tried in absentia.

If any of them are found guilty, the prospect of Hezbollah retaliating against its Lebanese rivals, Israel or the United States, or all three, is high.

If the suspects are cleared, the faction of Lebanon's Sunnis headed by Saad Hariri, the slain billionaire's son and political heir, may well seek to exact revenge for the 2005 assassination.

Hezbollah has sought to buttress itself by engineering the collapse of a Western-backed government headed by Saad Hariri in January 2011, replacing it with one it controls, with a pro-Syrian Sunni tycoon as prime minister.

However, the indictments were a major setback for a movement that boasts it is the savior of the nation by driving out Israeli occupation forces in May 2000 and fighting Israel's vaunted military to standstill in a 34-day war in 2006.

Hezbollah's image as the incorruptible leader of "the resistance" against Israel has been badly dented by the indictments, which raise the specter of Shiite-Sunni rivalry.

Hezbollah claims the tribunal is politically motivated and part of an Israeli plot to undermine the movement. It even claims that Israeli intelligence doctored mobile phone records that tribunal investigators say prove Hezbollah operatives were responsible for Hariri's death.

This has been widely seen as a Hezbollah bid to discredit the prosecution's evidence, which is heavily circumstantial and hinges on telephone intercepts.

When the U.N. investigation into the assassination was launched, Syria was the prime suspect. The outcry was such that Syria was forced to end its 29-year quasi-occupation of Lebanon.

The Americans and French, along with the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf, were key backers of the investigation. It was seen by some as an opportunity to hammer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of Iran, who at that time was aiding insurgents fighting coalition forces in Iraq.

Damascus denied involvement and refused to cooperate. The initial findings by the investigators pointed to Syria's intelligence apparatus being behind the assassination of Hariri, who was campaigning to end Syrian domination of Lebanon.

However, when investigators said in 2009 the evidence pointed toward Hezbollah, it was viewed as an opportunity to demonize Hezbollah.

Until al-Qaida came along, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other militant group.

Suspicions still linger that Syria was involved since Hezbollah was its key ally and would have been unlikely to carry out an assassination of that magnitude without approval -- or orders -- from Damascus.

Hezbollah has tried to derail the tribunal and failed. Its position has been weakened by its support for Assad since the uprising to topple the Damascus regime erupted last March.

If Assad falls, as others have done, Hezbollah would lose a powerful patron and would be cut off from Iran and its main source of weapons.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Wednesday his government is continuing to operate, although the Cabinet crisis, which broke out earlier this month over administrative appointments, has yet to be resolved.

Sources close to Mikati told The Daily Star discussions are under way for a solution.” The government is continuing and there is no problem in the Cabinet,” Mikati told reporters after visiting Speaker Nabih Berri at his residence in Ain al-Tineh.

“I informed Speaker Berri of some topics of common interest, and some topics which were brought up in Paris,” added Mikati, who went on an official visit to France last week.

Asked when Cabinet sessions would resume, Mikati said: “When the matter is resolved, we will immediately call for a session ... it has yet to be resolved.”

Sources close to Mikati said that recent developments could lead to a resolution of the government crisis, which began when the prime minister abruptly ended a Cabinet session on Feb.1 over sharp differences with ministers from Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc on the appointment for the head for the High Disciplinary Committee, and suspended future sessions. The position is traditionally reserved for Greek Catholics.

Mikati insisted that the Cabinet would resume its sessions only when an agreement was reached on a formula to make the government’s work productive, but the prime minister has hinted that he would resume Cabinet sessions if Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas signs a transportation allowance decree.

Last month, Nahhas, from Aoun’s bloc, signed a Cabinet decree approving a wage hike, which increased the minimum wage among other measures.

Nahhas refused to sign a decree under which the government would set the transportation allowance, arguing that this was illegal and required a draft law to be passed by Parliament.

President Michel Sleiman was outraged by Nahhas’s stance, saying that previous Cabinets had set transportation fees and that was the norm.

The same sources said that a possible solution had been discussed Wednesday at the Grand Serail by Mikati and Energy Minister Gibran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law.

The sources voiced their belief that any solution should come before Feb. 22, the date of a legislative session called by Berri.

According to the sources, discussion is focusing on a way out that would allow the prime minister to emerge without looking like he succumbed to the demands of one bloc in his Cabinet without putting Nahhas in a humiliating position, given that he has argued that it’s illegal for him to sign the decree.

The same sources said that such a solution would be a prelude to a new phase in relations between Mikati and ministers from the Change and Reform bloc.

But speaking to The Daily Star, sources from the Change and Reform bloc denied any information about an impending solution. They said that the bloc maintains its position and its plan for the bloc’s lawmakers to put forward a draft law on the transportation allowance to Parliament so MPs can make a decision during the legislative session on Feb. 22.

For his part, Berri was quoted by MPs who attended his weekly meeting with lawmakers as saying that he had not been persuaded so far to step in to mediate the Cabinet crisis. A heated debate between Nahhas and Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud was reported at the bloc’s weekly meeting under Aoun Tuesday.

Some members of the bloc argue that Nahhas brought the bloc into an unnecessary confrontation with Mikati.

Separately, Sleiman said that the mechanism for administrative appointments should be respected as it is democratic.

“We have laid down a mechanism which we have to respect. If we do not, then this means that we are moving away from the spirit of democracy. We have to accept the results of this mechanism just like we accept the results of elections,” Sleiman said in a speech at Baabda Palace.

Aoun stresses that he is not against the mechanism for administrative appointments, under which the relevant minister nominates three candidates for one post.

But he argues that he represents the Christians in the Cabinet and that he should be consulted on the issue regarding a candidate for the head of the High Disciplinary Committee.

He says that Sleiman is not a representative of Christians, but should play the role of an “arbitrator” in the Cabinet.

The Lebanese army late Thursday reinforced its presence in the northern region of Wadi Khaled, which borders Syria and is close to the flashpoint province of Homs, officials and local residents said.

“An army unit was seen deploying at a base in Wadi Khaled and then it began patrols inside villages and towns in the region,” a local official in Muqaybleh said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another official in Kneysseh, located in the same region, said troops were seen deploying in three villages along the border — Kneysseh, Hnayder and Qarha.

Several local residents said the army was also searching cars and checking identification at the main checkpoint located at the entrance of Wadi Khaled, an impoverished region at the northern tip of Lebanon.

A Lebanese army spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Syrian troops in recent months have mined the border with Wadi Khaled to prevent smuggling through illegal crossings and Lebanon becoming a safe haven for the opposition.

A Syrian man was seriously wounded on Thursday after stepping on a mine as he tried to cross into Lebanon, officials said.

The 26-year-old had one leg blown off, and was being treated at a hospital in the northern Lebanese region of Akkar.

Some 6,400 Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, most of them in Wadi Khaled, since the outbreak nearly a year ago of an unprecedented revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

A brutal government crackdown to put down the uprising has left more than 6,000 people dead, according to rights groups.

The central city of Homs has become a flashpoint of the revolt with at least 400 people killed in a relentless six-day onslaught by regime forces.