International Herald Tribune - Finger-Pointing Begins as Nations Ask, 'Who?', February 15, 2005
By Brian Knowlton
The United States said Monday that it would confer immediately with UN Security Council members on steps to punish those responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, and France called for an immediate international investigation. The United States will consult with other governments "about measures that can be taken to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack," and "to restore Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation," the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, said. President Jacques Chirac of France, a close friend of Hariri, condemned the attack, and said Hariri represented "the indefatigable will of independence, freedom and democracy" for Lebanon. Other government leaders around the world deplored the attack and expressed concern about the stability of Lebanon and its neighbors. While saying that "we do not know who was responsible for the attack at this point," McClellan clearly implied that U.S. suspicions pointed to Syria, which has 14,000 troops in Lebanon, and that more than condemnation might be under consideration, in concert with other countries. It was not immediately clear what new action Washington would seek from the Security Council, which last fall voted unanimously to demand the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon. Hariri resigned as prime minister in October after disputes with President Emile Lahoud, who is pro-Syrian. The bombing, McClellan said, appeared to have been "an attempt to stifle these efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon free of foreign domination." Syria is the only foreign power with troops based in Lebanon. Pressed by reporters, McClellan said, "It's premature to know who was responsible for this attack, but we continue to be concerned about the foreign occupation in Lebanon." Word of the assassination provoked a burst of finger-pointing directed at Syria, evoking widespread concerns that the stability of Lebanon and perhaps the larger region could be threatened. McClellan's remarks during a White House briefing appeared to be a toughening of a stance taken hours earlier. Then, he said that it was unclear who had conducted the attack, but added, deliberately, that Lebanon must be able to build a future "free from Syrian occupation." A Syrian official called the use of such language "not really constructive." Hariri recently joined demands by Lebanese opposition politicians that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon before general elections scheduled there for May. Hariri, who was friendly with President George W. Bush and a close friend of Chirac, had successfully encouraged both the United States and France to increase pressure on Damascus to remove its troops. France joined the United States and the 13 other United Nations Security Council members last autumn in a resolution urging a troop withdrawal. The Bush administration has also been ratcheting up pressure on Syria to halt support for militant groups in Israel and Iraq. Israel was less circumspect than McClellan was in suggesting a link between Syria and the attack. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel said that there was "no doubt" that Syria was "uncomfortable with the prospect of elections in Lebanon, and the last thing they want is to be forced to leave Lebanon." From Paris, where he met with Chirac, Shalom told Israeli radio that while "I cannot say for certain that Syria is behind this attack," Damascus was associated with "many groups which could have carried it out." He mentioned Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. President Bashar Assad of Syria condemned Hariri's killing as a "terrible criminal act" and urged the Lebanese "to reinforce their national unity and reject all those who aim to cause trouble and sow division," the official Syrian press agency SANA reported. Iran, however, suggested that Israel might have had a hand in the killing. "An organized terrorist structure such as the Zionist regime has the capacity for such an operation, whose aim is to undermine the unity of Lebanon," Hamid Reza Asefi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said, according to the official IRNA press agency. France called for an international inquiry "to determine the circumstances of, and responsibility for, this tragedy, before punishing the culprits." A statement from Chirac's office said "France pays tribute to the person who personified Lebanon's unshaking will for independence, freedom and democracy." Amr Mussa, secretary general of the Arab League, condemned the attack as an act of "massive sedition" and expressed grave concerns about its regional ramifications. "The probabilities are serious," Mussa said, "and we beseech God to save Lebanon from this dangerous terrorist act and its repercussions." He said it would have "a significant fallout," Agence France-Presse reported from Cairo. The European Union urged the Lebanese to remain calm and to hold to the schedule of elections in May. "We condemn unreservedly all those who seek to obtain their goals through violent means," said Emma Udwin, an EU spokeswoman. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, called the killing "despicable" and called Hariri "a man of peace and a great friend." Some financial markets in the region responded with jitters. The United Nations Security Council last year unanimously called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon; the wording could apply only to Syrian forces, in the country since 1976. The resolution also demanded the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, which was seen as a reference to the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militant group.