Lebanon tensions climb following Hezbollah indictments

Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, gestures as he speaks during a press conference at his house, July 1, 2011. Associated Press

BEIRUT - A key Hezbollah ally on Friday warned that an international indictment of members of the Islamic militant group in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could lead to new civil strife in Lebanon.

A high-ranking Hezbollah militant was among four people named in an indictment by the U.N.-backed tribunal investigating Hariri's 2005 assassination. The Shiite group denies any role in the killing and has vowed never to turn over any of its members.

The indicted Hezbollah figure, Mustafa Badreddine, appears to have a storied history of militancy.

He is suspected building the powerful bomb that blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans, mostly Marines, according to a federal law enforcement official and a book "Jawbreaker,'' by Gary Berntsen, a former official who ran the Hezbollah task force at the CIA.

The warning on Friday came from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a partner in the government whose support would be crucial if Lebanese authorities are to cooperate with prosecutors of the international court.

At a press conference, Jumblatt said the need to preserve peace in Lebanon trumps the need for justice in the Hariri case. He pointed to widespread fears that the case could further divide the country, which has been recovering from decades of bloodshed, including a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and recent sectarian battles.

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"As much as justice is important for the martyrs and the wounded, so too civil peace and stability is the hoped-for future,'' he said at a news conference. "Civil peace is more important than anything else.''

The current government, dominated by Hezbollah's allies, is seen as deeply unlikely to work with the Netherlands-based tribunal. But the ruling coalition relies on Jumblatt's bloc to keep its majority in parliament, and his position has been unclear. A notoriously mercurial leader known for frequently switching sides in Lebanon's shifting alliances, he has given contradictory signals.

Even as he warned Friday of the dangers of the indictments, he also seemed to suggest the court should move ahead. "Let us allow matters to move smoothly: let the government do its job, the judiciary do its job,'' he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday countered that critics were creating "a false distinction between justice and stability.''

In a statement issued Friday, she called on the Lebanese government to support the special tribunal investigating Hariri's death. The tribunal was established in part at the request of a former Lebanese government dominated by Hariri allies.

The court ``represents a chance for Lebanon to move beyond its long history of political violence and to achieve the future of peace and stability that the Lebanese people deserve,'' Clinton said in a statement. The Netherlands-based court issued the indictments Thursday, though it did not release the names of the accused. A Lebanese judicial official who saw the warrants gave the names to The Associated Press, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Lebanese authorities have until the end of July to serve the indictments on suspects or execute arrest warrants. If they fail, the court can then order the indictment published and advertised in local media.

Badreddine, the only indicted member to have a public profile, is believed to have been Hezbollah's deputy military commander. He is the brother-in-law of the late Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh and is suspected of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait that killed five people.

The other suspects are: Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra and Hassan Anise, who changed his name to Hassan Issa. Their ties to Hezbollah, if any, are not immediately known. Hezbollah has not commented on the indictment. The group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has denounced the court as a conspiracy by the U.S. and Israel and said last year that the group ``will cut off the hand'' of anyone who tries to arrest its members. It was a potent threat, given that Nasrallah commands an arsenal that far outweighs that of the national army.

Nasrallah was expected to discuss the issue Saturday evening in a televised speech.

The case has already polarized Lebanon's rival factions Hezbollah with its patrons in Syria and Iran on one side, and a Western-backed bloc led by Hariri's son, Saad, on the other and brought down the government earlier this year.

Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman, was one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leaders; Hezbollah is a Shiite group.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, suspicion fell on Syria, since Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of the country.

Syria has denied any role in the murder, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus and led to huge street demonstrations that helped end Syria's 29-year military presence.

The tribunal, which is jointly funded by U.N. member states and Lebanon, filed a draft indictment in January but the contents were not revealed while Belgian judge Daniel Fransen decided whether there was enough evidence for a trial. The draft has been amended twice since then.

Lebanon formed a new government this month after five months of political wrangling that gives Hezbollah unprecedented political clout. But Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was Hezbollah's pick for the post, has insisted he will not do one side's bidding.

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