Page last updated at 23:34 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Search for justice for Rafik Hariri

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

Saad Hariri, pictured in France on 2 January 2009
Saad Hariri hopes a tribunal will bring his father's killers to justice

On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the murder that changed Lebanon's history, Saad Hariri, the young leader of the country's pro-Western Sunni parliamentary majority, received a phone call from Hillary Clinton.

The US secretary of state was ringing to assure him that the new American administration would do everything in its power to bring to justice those who killed his father, Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Last week, seated next to his father's photograph in his spacious brand new mansion in the historic heart of Beirut, Rafik Hariri's political heir said he knew who was behind the killing.

Saad Hariri has never made a secret of his belief that the masterminds of the car bomb that hit his father's convoy on 14 February 2005, killing 22 people, were hiding in the top echelons of the Syrian government.

In fact his entire political career has been built on this accusation, which Damascus has always denied.

'Here to stay'

In its early stages, the UN investigation into the killing, led back then by German judge Detlev Mehlis, also implicated top-level Syrian security officials, including President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law.

But Mr Mehlis' successor in the probe, Daniel Bellmare of Canada, who will now preside over the tribunal, has been much less outspoken and it is not clear whether the tribunal will have enough evidence to prove this link.

According to Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, the West has also changed its attitude towards Syria.

"In the beginning the UN investigation was clearly geared towards regime change in Syria, and now this is no longer the case," he said.

The aftermath of the car bombing that killed Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005
The killing of Rafik Hariri sparked outrage in Lebanon

"I think now, both in Europe and in the United States, there is a realisation that the Syrian government is here to stay."

Unlike their predecessors, first President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and now US President Barack Obama have made it clear that they want to engage with Damascus.

Saad Hairri shrugged his shoulders when asked whether he felt betrayed.

"They can engage, as long as they prosecute," he said, adding that he believed that "they" would.

"I don't think that I am going to change the policy of Europe or America vis-a-vis the engagement. In fact, I think it can be good for the region. And if it's good for the region - it can be good for Lebanon," he said.

Saad Hariri seems just as resigned about the international tribunal, which on 1 March will begin trying suspects in his father's killing in The Hague.

"I want many things but I will settle for whatever the tribunal brings," he said.

"People tend to talk about the tribunal as if it's going to make the regime crumble. I think maybe certain officers of high or low level may be put in prison, but at the end of the day the regime will continue," he said.

Changing times

Saad Hariri's rhetoric could not have been more different at the time of the assassination, when he emerged as one of the leaders of public movement against Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

In 2005, the combination of international pressure on Damascus and mass demonstrations in the streets of Beirut forced Syria to end its 30-year domination of Lebanon.

The withdrawal of the Syrian troops was a huge victory for Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians, and so was the more recent creation of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

And so Saad Hariri's slightly resigned attitude towards the tribunal is a sign of political strength rather than weakness, Paul Salem thinks.

"Hariri's rhetoric has changed because things are different, Lebanon is in a better place and Hariri's supporters have in fact managed to get many things that they demanded - including the tribunal, as well as the Syrian withdrawal," Mr Salem said.

Four years on since the murder that plunged Lebanon into chaos and instability, the country is now enjoying a period of rare calm.

A string of political assassinations that followed Rafik Hariri's death seems to have ended, Lebanon is talking to Syria, and rival politicians in Beirut are talking to each other. But the question is whether any of this can last.

Saad Hariri's opponents - and there are plenty of them here - have already accused him of using his father's death for his own political gains in the upcoming election in June.

It will be a tight and crucial race for parliament, in which a coalition of pro-Western politicians led by Saad Hariri will compete with the alliance led by the Shia group Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran.

It will be a bitter fight - and a real test of Lebanon's stability.

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