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Despite warrants, arrests not likely in Lebanese prime minister's death

Lebanese women pass by a giant portrait of slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri near his grave, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on June 30, 2011.

Hussein Malla/Associated Press/Hussein Malla/Associated Press

Warrants issued for the arrest of four men wanted for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri have the potential to tear Lebanon apart - but don't expect the men to stand trial or even be arrested any time soon.

Mr. Hariri and 22 others were killed on Valentine's Day 2005 from the blast of a massive truck bomb on the corniche in downtown Beirut. More than six years later, the warrants were given to Lebanon's Prosecutor-General, with the demand his officials arrest the four Lebanese citizens.

The names of the four people have not officially been revealed, but Lebanese media report that all four are members of Hezbollah, the militant Shia political movement that now controls the government of Lebanon.

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The men reportedly include Mustafa Badreddine, said to have been Hezbollah's deputy military commander, and brother-in-law of the late Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh. The others - Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra and Hassan Anise, who changed his name to Hassan Issa - are relative unknowns.

Hezbollah has denounced the tribunal as a U.S.-Israeli front and says it will never allow its people to be tried. It toppled the previous government of Saad Hariri over the pending tribunal actions, and the whole country lives in fear of a return to the kind of civil war that plagued the country from 1975-90.

Saad Hariri, son of the late Rafik Hariri, hailed the tribunal's act as "historic."

Maybe so, but "nothing's going to happen," said Karim Makdisi, deputy director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, "and Hariri knows it."

"If they try to serve the warrants they'll be blocked," Mr. Makdisi said. And if they ever should actually arrest someone, all hell will break loose.

Officials in the newly formed government of Najid Mikati have 30 days to report to the tribunal "on the measures they have taken to arrest the accused." It doesn't mean they have to serve the warrants within that first month.

"Lawyers will spin things out," Mr. Makdisi said, suggesting they'll comply with the technical reporting requirements but make absolutely no real move to arrest anyone.

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"It'll be a case of 'don't call us, we'll call you,' " he said.

Of course, it helps in protecting Hezbollah that Lebanon's new Justice Minister, Shakib Qortbawi, is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Maronite Christian party led by General Michel Aoun, a close ally of Hezbollah. The Justice Ministry was the one post Gen. Aoun insisted his party be given during deliberations to form the coalition. His allegiance to Hezbollah won him their support, and gave him the largest number of seats in cabinet.

For his part, Mr. Mikati said his government "will act responsibly" in dealing with the tribunal's request.

A statement from his office read: "The government confirms that it will follow the progress of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was set up in principle to see justice served in a manner that is neither politicized nor vengeful, and as long as it does not negatively affect Lebanon's stability and civil peace."

In other words, the government will put stability and civil peace ahead of the arrest warrants, and the situation will remain as it is for a long time to come.

"Lebanon may be the safest place for the four wanted guys to be," Mr. Makdisi said. "They don't even have to hide out."

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Saad Hariri understands this, and if the Mikati government does nothing, as expected, Mr. Hariri figures to use that as leverage against the prime minister in the lead up to elections less than two years away.

In much the same way Mr. Hariri's March 14 political movement came to power in the wake of his father's assassination, Mr. Hariri hopes that a backlash against the Mikati government will make the people see that Mr. Hariri is the better Sunni leader to run the country.

The only complication in all of this is if Syria's President Bashar al-Assad should fall from power. Indeed, the warrants may not be the last ones the tribunal issues.

Detlev Mehlis, the first head of the international inquiry, stated publicly that Hezbollah acted as the sub-contractor of the Syrians. Ominously, General Ghazi Kanaan, Syria's Interior Minister, was reported to have "committed suicide" in October 2005, after allegations surfaced in Lebanon that he was behind the Hariri assassination.

With all the uproar currently in Syria, an indictment against Syria's leaders could help propel Mr. al-Assad from office.

In that event, Hezbollah will become very concerned. The Assad regime is a close ally and the principal conduit to Hezbollah's main benefactor, Iran.

"The worse things get for Assad, the more nervous Hezbollah becomes," Mr. Makdisi said.

The question is, says Joseph Bahout, a lecturer in Syria-Lebanese studies at Sciences Po in Paris, "If the Syrian regime gets weaker, will Hezbollah gradually become more flexible … or, on the contrary, will it increasingly pursue a radical position and bitterly defend its share [of power]"

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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