Saudi, Syrian, Lebanese Leaders Meet to Defuse Crisis Over Hariri Killing

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah met today with Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman in Beirut amid tension over possible indictments in the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri.

Assad and Abdullah, meeting in Damascus yesterday, stressed their support for Lebanon’s national unity government and the country’s stability, as well as calling for Palestinian reconciliation, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said. Abdullah, who started his tour of Arab nations in Egypt this week, heads to Amman today to meet with Jordan’s monarch.

This is Assad’s first visit to Lebanon since the killing of Hariri, father of Saad Hariri, the present Lebanese prime minister. The death caused a souring of relations between Lebanon and Syria. An initial United Nations investigation implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian intelligence officials. Syria has denied any involvement.

A UN tribunal set up to try those responsible for the death of Hariri and 22 others in a bombing hasn’t yet announced who will be charged. Members of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement, classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, may be indicted, according to Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary-general, who said last week that he had received the information from Saad Hariri.

War With Israel

Nasrallah said the alleged implication of Hezbollah in the Hariri killing is part of a plot to target the group, which has support in Lebanon and the wider Arab world, where it is viewed as a legitimate form of resistance to Israel. Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, is part of the Lebanese government that was formed last year.

Hezbollah’s policy is to support “any Arab initiative or rapprochement that will help strengthen solidarity against Israeli aggression and occupation of our land,” spokesman Ibrahim el-Moussawi said in an interview today.

Syria, which played a key role in Lebanese politics for three decades, withdrew its army from Lebanon in 2005 amid an international outcry over Hariri’s assassination.

International pressure on Syria has eased since the troop withdrawal and since Syria helped broker an end to an 18-month political crisis in Lebanon in 2008. Better Syrian-Saudi relations also helped Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim politician, to form the government last year.

“Lebanon is a theater for all kinds of conflict in the Middle East,” Mohamad Chatah, a political adviser to the Lebanese premier, said in an interview today. The visit of Assad and Abdullah is seen as reassuring and as providing “some form of protection,” Chatah said.

No details were released on today’s one-day summit, which prompted a tightening of security throughout Lebanon’s capital.

The meeting is about “lowering the rhetoric and agreeing that there is no reason for things to go the wrong way,” rather than concluding a deal on the tribunal, Chatah said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut at mderhally@bloomberg.net.

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