Lebanese fearfully anticipated the release of the UN investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, as security measures were heightened around the capital prior to the expected announcement.
Security checkpoints have been set up at key junctions in Beirut, extra soldiers now guard government buildings, and the issuing of gun licenses has been frozen as tension over what the document says and what the future holds rises to a boiling point.
"Everybody is dead scared about the release of the report," a Westerner living in the Lebanese capital told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Beirut on condition of anonymity. "This has become such a big issue here."
Most believed that the UN inquiry into the February killing of Hariri will implicate senior Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials. Syria was the main power broker in Lebanon when Hariri, prime minister for 10 of the last 15 years, was killed along with 20 others in a massive bombing on a Beirut street. "Everybody seems to think that once people are blamed things will start exploding," said the Westerner.
There have been precedents. Since Hariri's death, a series of untraced bombs have exploded around the tiny country of some four million, killing or wounding politicians and journalists who opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
For Syria, the results of the investigation could have serious far-reaching consequences.
An Israeli analyst said the Bush administration hopes to use the report prepared by UN investigator Detlev Mehlis to bring about the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad. "America wants Bashar's head and is looking for excuses," said Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at the Dayan Center.
The Washington Post reported that the US and France have been preparing for the possibility that Syrian officials will be implicated with two UN Security Council resolutions that would isolate Syria internationally and possibly cause the collapse of the regime.
State Department spokesman Justin Higgins told The Jerusalem Post that the report was inaccurate. "We do not have two resolutions in the works. There are no resolutions in the works," said Higgins. "We still need to look at the report and review it to decide on what actions might or might not be warranted by its findings." However, a US government official told The Post that the administration is discussing "elements" for a possible resolution.
The Bush administration has been hassling Syria uncompromisingly over the Syrian-Iraqi border. It charges that Syria allows terrorists to cross its border into Iraq, where they have joined the insurgency and attack US soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Syria maintains that it has done far more than the Americans and the Iraqis in guarding the joint border by placing thousands of troops and beefing up manned positions.
According to Zisser, if the Americans cause Syria's Baathist regime to collapse, the consequences will be dire. "If they succeed, the situation in Syria will be like in Iraq: chaos, anarchy, and Islamic terror," said Zisser. "But what do the Americans understand? They think pushing him to the wall or making him fall will make things better."
If the report does not name names, then "those who want the head of Bashar will have to wait for another chance," said Zisser. "The best thing would be that Bashar cooperate with the Americans."
While people in Beirut fear for their lives and the future of Syria stands in question, the atmosphere in Damascus is calm and the streets are quiet. "Most people here are oblivious," a Western journalist told The Post by phone on condition of anonymity. "They don't even know what the Mehlis report is." Most of the media in a country of some 18 million people is controlled by the state, a dictatorship long ruled by the Baathist party and the Assad family. Those aware of the seriousness of the report are a small number of people from diametrically opposed groups: the Syrian establishment and the small and weak opposition.
"The people who know what's going on realize the situation is volatile," said the journalist, who has spoken with many from both sides. "Everyone is just waiting. People don't really know what's in the report or what will happen."
The Mehlis team has already named four Lebanese generals, all close to Syria, as suspects in the assassination, and Lebanese authorities arrested them. Last week, one of seven Syrian officials questioned by the UN team, Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. In recent media interviews Assad has repeatedly denied Syria's involvement in the assassination.
Thursday, Lebanese Prosecutor-General Saeed Mirza officially asked France to extradite Zuhair Muhammad al-Siddiq, a Syrian national who claims to be a Syrian intelligence officer. Siddiq, who was arrested Monday, has been charged in Lebanon with complicity in Hariri's assassination and lying to investigators. He was reported to be a leading witness in the UN investigation, but his testimony was later discredited.
Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said Lebanon believed it would receive a copy of the Mehlis report on Friday, after which the Cabinet was expected to be called into session to discuss it.
Meanwhile, the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Americans wait.
AP contributed to this article.
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