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Elusive Truth Behind the Hariri Hit

By Robert Parry
January 4, 2006

The conventional wisdom solidifying around the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is that Syrian intelligence agencies did it. But the sad reality is that the chief United Nations investigator so rushed to judgment that the truth may now be lost forever in a maze of geopolitics.

Chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis is withdrawing from the investigation, but not before submitting a second report on Dec. 10, 2005, that sought to salvage the tattered reputation of his earlier report that had relied heavily on two dubious witnesses to implicate senior officials of the Syrian government.

One of those witnesses – Zuhair Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik – was later identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from his Hariri testimony.

The other, Hussam Taher Hussam, recanted his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese officials.

In his follow-up report, Mehlis countered by asserting that Hussam’s recantation was coerced by Syrian authorities who allegedly threatened Hussam’s family. But the conflicting accusations already had given the investigation the feel of “a fictional spy thriller,” as the New York Times noted. [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]

Political Agendas

The pursuit of truth has been further confused by the various political agendas swirling around the case.

The Bush administration has sought to use the Hariri investigation to press for regime change in Syria; anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians have seized on the report to isolate Syrian sympathizers in Lebanon; and Syrian leaders have complained that they’re being framed both by internal and external enemies who want to destabilize the government.

There is also the complex question of motive. Hariri, a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, had many enemies who might have wanted him dead, either for his business or his political dealings.

After the Feb. 14 attack, a videotape was delivered to al-Jazeera television on which a Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, claimed to have carried out the suicide bombing. According to the video, Hariri was targeted by Islamic militants because of his work as “the agent of the infidels” in Saudi Arabia.

The first U.N. report relied on the two now-discredited witnesses – Saddik and Hussam – to dismiss the videotape as part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect suspicion from Syria.

But it is true that Hariri offended Syrian authorities by opposing the continued tenure of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president.

Syria’s former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam said Syrian President Bashar Assad had an angry confrontation with Hariri several months before the assassination, though Khaddam – now in exile – stopped short of implicating Assad in Hariri’s murder. [NYT, Jan. 3, 2006]

Forensic Progress

Amid the fog of the region’s convoluted geopolitics, one of the few bright spots in the Hariri probe has been progress in the forensic investigation – particularly the mystery of the white Mitsubishi Canter Van that was seen on a security camera rolling toward Hariri’s motorcade immediately before the explosion.

The first U.N. report described the van as the vehicle that delivered the bomb. Investigators even identified the precise vehicle from numbers found in the debris, including a piece of the engine block.

The investigation learned that the van had been stolen in Japan four months earlier, but the report showed little effort to investigate who might have stolen the vehicle and how it got from Japan to Lebanon.

After the first report was released in October, I wrote an article suggesting that possibly the most promising hope for cracking the case was to pursue more aggressively the forensic leads, particularly who last possessed the van. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]

The second U.N. report does reveal some progress on this front. Japanese police have concluded that the van likely was shipped, either in whole or in parts, to the United Arab Emirates, a Persian Gulf state known as a center for contraband in the Arab world.

U.N. investigators also have sought help from “UAE authorities to trace the movements of this vehicle, including reviewing shipping documents from the UAE and, with the assistance of the UAE authorities, attempting to locate and interview the consignees of the container in which the vehicle or its parts is believed to have been shipped,” the report said.

On the Lebanon end, however, security officials said they had no record of the identification numbers from the van’s engine or chassis on any vehicle registered in Lebanon.

So it may be hard – or even impossible – to determine who took possession of the vehicle after it left the UAE and then presumably passed by ship through the Suez Canal to a port on the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly would help the investigation to know where the vehicle landed and who picked it up.

“This line of enquiry remains in its early stages,” the report said.

As the U.N. probe grinds on and a new investigator is chosen to replace Mehlis, the press attention will likely remain focused on the pressure brought to bear on Syrian authorities to get them to cooperate more fully.

But the forensic evidence – both following the van’s trail and possibly tracking the source of the explosives – could offer the best hope of finally learning the truth and possibly bringing Hariri’s killers to justice.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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