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Report on Hariri's Death Rocks Syria, Lebanon

SCOTT SIMON, host:

There's been more fallout today from the United Nations investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. Mr. al-Hariri's son has called for an international court to bring the perpetrators to justice. The UN report on the killing last February has implicated relatives of Syria's president, Bashar Al-Assad, and Syrian allies in the Lebanese government. NPR's Deborah Amos is in our London bureau, where she's been covering this story.

Deb, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And tell us a bit about this investigation. The veteran German investigator, Detlef Mehlis, is the author of the report.

AMOS: It's been a bombshell in the Middle East, Scott. Not since the Ken Starr report was released in Washington has a bureaucratic report caused such a stir and this time it was across the Middle East. Al-Jazeera, the Arabic language satellite channel, broadcast a reading of the entire report in English with Arab subtitles and that was four hours long. People in Damascus and Beirut, they were up all night downloading and reading the report. And, Scott, it is a remarkable read because it's detailed. It's exhaustive and it's about the relationship between Syria and Lebanon and the murky world of their security services.

SIMON: I mean, it details the blast itself, hundreds of eyewitness accounts and statements. Tell us about this meeting in Damascus, I guess, on the 26th of August.

AMOS: This is where the Mehlis report begins its chronology, so that's important. So let me set the scene. Rafik Hariri, who was at the time the prime minister of Lebanon, is summoned to Damascus. President Bashar Al-Assad tells him he wants the term of Lebanon's president, Syria's man in Lebanon, extended for another three years. No vote, just do it, change the constitution. Now what the Mehlis report does is deconstruct that meeting from Syrian witnesses and Lebanese witnesses. The Lebanese all say President Assad threatened Hariri. He said, `If you don't do what I tell you, I'll break Lebanon over your head.' The Syrian witnesses all say, `No, it was friendly. Everyone all got along.' But then Mehlis cites a recording made in Hariri's office with a high-ranking Syrian official who essentially says, `We've got you in a corner, pal, and you better take this seriously,' which contradicts his written testimony. It's an amazing, amazing document.

SIMON: Now who are some of the people named in this report?

AMOS: Well, the report that was delivered to the United Nations Security Council links close members of Syria's president to the assassination. It's through witnesses. Some of them are named, some of them are not. It doesn't say conclusively they ordered Hariri dead, but it points to where Mehlis will be looking when he continues and this is at the heart of the Syrian regime. It's the inner circle, the president's brother and his brother-in-law, who were brought to power five years ago. So can Mehlis link them directly to the assassination, and what happens if he does?

SIMON: Now of course, this report is coming out during the same week in which Saddam Hussein has visibly on television sets across the world been standing trial in Baghdad. Any kind of influence that one event seems to have had on the other?

AMOS: No. But I think in some ways you could argue that the Mehlis report will have more impact. It's an international investigation carried out. There's been no military coup, no invasion. The governments concerned are still in power and yet here's this damaging report. Four Lebanese security chiefs have already been arrested and this is unprecedented. It's the first dent in the shadowy government that really runs things in the Middle East, the security apparatus. And at the same time, there's anxiety. And Lebanon, there's concern about a string of assassinations even after Hariri's death. Will it continue? In Damascus, Syrians ask, can this go on without the government toppling? Nobody in the region wants another Iraq, so there's concern.

SIMON: We will tell our listeners there's a link to the UN report on our Web site. You can read it for yourself at npr.org.

NPR's Deborah Amos in London, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.