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Anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders push ahead

Lebanon’s Cabinet recently approved an international tribunal to try suspects accused of participating in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. Marwan Hamade, an outspoken anti-Syrian minister and Cabinet minister, discusses the current political landscape.
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On the heels of yet another political assassination, on Saturday who was killed on Feb. 14, 2005.

Just as with last week's assassination of anti-Syrian politician Pierre Gemayel, Syria has been accused of having a hand in Hariri's killing. And while Syria routinely denies that it carries out assassinations in Lebanon, no one disputes that several of its opponents in the country have met with fatal ends ever since Syria was forced to pull its forces out of Lebanon in the wake of the protests that followed Hariri's death. 

Those who accuse Syria of the killings say Damascus is using its Shiite allies in Lebanon to undermine the local government before the international tribunal can receive final approval. Lebanon's Shiite parties — Hezbollah and Amal — say they are simply protesting because the government's make-up does not accurately reflect the political identity of Lebanon at present.

Marwan Hamade, one of the Lebanese Cabinet's most outspoken anti-Syrian ministers — and himself the target of an assassination attempt in 2004 — spoke with MSNBC's Seth Colter Walls over the phone from Beirut about the current political landscape.

The international tribunal that would try suspects accused of participating in the assassination of Hariri still needs the approval of parliament, so you will still need to negotiate with Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah for final approval. Does that mean that essentially nothing has been settled yet?
It will go to parliament, yes, but it's good to remember that our camp has the majority [of legislators] there.

In the U.S., the majority party elects the speaker of the house, but in Lebanon, it's always a Shiite. Even though Speaker Berri is not in the majority, is there any procedural way he could prevent this issue from even coming up for a vote?
It would be very difficult for a speaker of the house to prevent a vote of such importance, especially if the majority asks for it. Also, the Cabinet can also pose what's called a "question of confidence," and therefore they would be obliged to bring it up. 

So when do you hope to have the international tribunal signed, sealed, and delivered?
We hope to be finished with all these proceedings by the end of December.

There's a personal stake in this issue as well. Many of your allies consider the attempt on your life in late 2004 to have been the opening shot in what they call Syria's campaign against Lebanon's independence movement. Is there any doubt in your mind that your targeting and the subsequent killings of Rafik Hariri, Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gibran Tueni, and now Pierre Gemayel were committed by Syria?
No, I never had any doubt. If you take into consideration the profile of the people involved and the political environment, it is clear. Only one country has the motive, the means, and the style of the Syrian regime, which has been used in these killings. Though I'm sure the international inquiry will bring about the full truth regarding all the details. 

Some say that, besides the victims themselves, Syria ends up being most damaged by these killings — since Damascus is always immediately accused. What do you say to that? Syria has never actually suffered from any of these claims [of killing in Lebanon], and their reputation is already made.

For 25 years, Syria has been killing, systematically, all Lebanese leaders who had the courage to say "no" to their influence. This goes back to Kamal Jumblat [father of current Druze leader Walid Jumblat] and Bashir Gemayel [the uncle of recently assassinated Christian leader Pierre Gemayel], who were both killed. This is Syria's way of eliminating their opposition.

Some of your allies have accused other Lebanese political currents — including Hezbollah — of doing Damascus's bidding. But your opponents, in turn, make a similar claim about your side. — accusing the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon of giving daily instructions to your Cabinet. Is there any truth to that statement?
This is absolutely ridiculous. Though, of course, for the past two years, we have relied much on the support of the international community, which includes the U.S. and France, as well as Europe. But it's important to note that even China and Russia supported the tribunal at the U.N. So to say that the resolution was because of Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman is not serious.

What about the broader regional context that engulfs Lebanese-Syrian relations? The "Iraq Study Group,” led by former secretary of state James Baker and former representative Lee Hamilton, may reportedly recommend that the U.S. ask Syria and Iran for help in Iraq. What do you think of that?
Well, I think — and I hope — that, as the greatest democratic experiment in the region in the past couple of years, Lebanon will not be "traded" away in any negotiations.

[Many observers say the U.S., though James Baker, lent tacit approval to Syria's occupation of Lebanon in 1991, in exchange for its assistance in the first war with Iraq.]

It's a different time; it's a different Middle East. [Current Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad is not Hafez al-Assad [his father, the previous president, with whom then President George H.W. Bush and James Baker negotiated].

Also, I don't think the U.S. administration — or the Congress — will get very far with Syria and Iran on the Iraq matter. Mostly because the harm has already been done. What has happened in Iraq is out of control of the Syrians anyway; and while the Iranians have some control with the Shia, in my judgment, it's not enough, even if they wanted to help out.

MSNBC TV's Seth Colter Walls worked at Beirut's Daily Star newspaper during 2004. Prior to joining MSNBC, he was editor of, a Web-based service that translates key Arabic- and Persian-language stories from print, radio and television media in the Middle East.