by Kareem Shaheen, The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Hezbollah and former Premier Rafik Hariri were preparing to form a broad, powerful Sunni-Shiite coalition in Lebanon before he was killed, defense lawyers at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon said Wednesday, pushing back against claims that the relationship was tense in the run-up to the assassination.
In his seventh day of testimony in The Hague, Hariri’s former adviser and Economy Minister Marwan Hamade also revealed that Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah told him in a secret meeting in the spring of 2005 that he “did not know” if Syria had anything to do with an attempt on his life in late 2004, the first in a string of attacks targeting anti-Syrian political figures in Lebanon.
Hamade survived the car bombing that targeted him in October days after his bloc in Parliament opposed the re-election of the deeply unpopular pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, which passed after alleged threats from Syrian President Bashar Assad in a meeting with Hariri.
“I asked him, ‘Sayyed, did you target me last October?’ And he said absolutely no,” Hamade testified, referring to the secret meeting with Nasrallah and Hezbollah MP Nawwaf Musawi, which he said was either in late April or early May.
“I followed up with a quick question, ‘Did the Syrian brothers have a role?’ he continued. “He told me ‘I do not know.’”
If the details of the meeting are accurate, it would be the first time Hezbollah has expressed ambivalence regarding Syrian involvement in the string of political assassinations in Lebanon that began with the attempted killing of Hamade.
Hezbollah publicly says that accusations against Syria are politically motivated. It has blamed Hariri’s killing on Israel despite the widespread belief at the time that Syria was behind the attack.
The STL is trying in absentia five Hezbollah members accused of complicity in the Valentine’s Day bombing in 2005 that killed Hariri and 21 others and led to massive demonstrations that forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
But the other intriguing parts of the hearing were the questions posed by Antoine Korkmaz, the defense lawyer for Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah operative accused of being the apex of the conspiracy, implying that the alliance between Hariri and Nasrallah was broader than previously believed.
In his questions, Korkmaz asked Hamade if he was aware that Hariri and Nasrallah had formed a joint, permanent committee of Future Movement and Hezbollah cadres to prepare for the 2005 parliamentary elections, holding meetings every 10 days including secret sessions in Paris.
Korkmaz claimed the frequent meetings between Hariri and Nasrallah and the creation of the parliamentary committee were precursors to what he described as a “comprehensive” Sunni-Shiite alliance that was set to be announced in 2005.
If true, the claims point to a much broader rapprochement and budding political alliance drawing together Hariri and Nasrallah that went far beyond their public cordiality at the time, and hinted at a possibly far-reaching settlement that would have brought together Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite communities, now at loggerheads over the Syria war.
Korkmaz pointed out that the Future Movement and Hezbollah ran in joint parliamentary lists in some districts in 2005 and Nasrallah ordered his party’s supporters in an edict to vote for the March 14 candidates in the Aley/Baabda district.
Hamade said that Hezbollah had sought the electoral alliance in 2005 after Hariri’s assassination because they realized there was a change in the balance of power with the withdrawal of Syria’s troops.
Korkmaz also asked whether Hamade was aware that Hezbollah had launched its own investigation into the Hariri case and had shared its results with the Hariri family and Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, who would later become the Lebanese intelligence chief, in addition to pledging to take “all necessary measures” to find and apprehend Hariri’s killers.
Hezbollah’s investigations at the time had revealed that a bomb with a size in excess of 1,000 kg and was above ground had destroyed Hariri’s motorcade, before U.N. investigators had drawn their own, matching conclusions.
Korkmaz asked Hamade if he thought Nasrallah was being truthful when he expressed his sorrow for Hariri’s assassination and condemned the crime during the March 8 rally after the attack, recalling how he visited Qoreitem Palace personally to offer condolences.
“You ask me about the credibility of these words – at that moment, we were seriously thankful to him for those statements,” Hamade said. “On the other hand, we were frustrated and surprised at the [March 8] festival, what became a festival to defend the Syrian regime and its tools in Lebanon.”
Korkmaz also offered up a surprise revelation, showing that an individual who had called Hamade’s telephone in late 2004 had also called a telephone belonging to Sami Issa, an alias of Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, on a telephone that was allegedly used only to contact other members of the conspiracy.
Hamade said he did not know who used his cellphone at the time since he had lost it in the car bombing that targeted him in October 2004, but suggested it may have been a ploy by the assassins to mislead investigators.
Korkmaz also read out newspaper columns written by Hamade in the late 1990s and in 2000 praising Syrian presidents Hafez and Bashar Assad, in an attempt to discredit his statements on Syria’s growing domination and oppression of the Lebanese before the assassination.
Hamade said he had changed his views on the relationship with Syria with the growing clampdown and control exerted by Assad over Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.