Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of Rafik Hariri, the slain former Lebanese prime minister, is in Washington this week to meet with President Bush and other senior U.S. officials. He says he will ask for U.S. assistance in securing Lebanon's borders and improving its internal security. The visit comes at a time of crisis in the Lebanese government, and as tensions with Syria escalate over the United Nations' investigation into Rafik Hariri's killing.
The departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon last April after a nearly 30-year presence has not brought the peace and stability the Lebanese had hoped for. Instead, there have been several more assassinations and attempted assassinations of Syria's opponents in Lebanon, as well as a string of smaller bombings that have raised anxiety among the population. Saad Hariri is now himself a potential target, and has been living outside Lebanon for most of the past year.
Lebanon's latest crisis is political. Five Shi'ite Muslim Cabinet ministers belonging to the pro-Syrian Amal and Hezbollah movements walked out of the government in mid-December. They are protesting the majority's call for the creation of an international tribunal to try those responsible for Hariri's murder. They say they will not return to the government until it is agreed that such decisions be made through consensus, not the majority. They have also added as a condition of their return that the government officially declare Hezbollah a resistance movement, not a militia, which could ease international pressure on the group to disarm under U.N. Resolution 1559.
It is against this backdrop that the 35-year-old Hariri, who heads the majority bloc in parliament, arrived in Washington. Speaking to an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, he expressed optimism that the current political crisis would soon be resolved through a national dialogue.
"I believe that time will resolve it, that discussion and national dialogue on these issues - even if they take time - a conflict is far more worse than pushing things forward," he said. "So if we need time we will take our time."
Speaking about the United Nations investigation into his father's assassination, Hariri said he would accept any results the commission comes out with. He also urged Syria to fully cooperate with the investigation, formerly led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, but now headed by Serge Brammertz of Belgium.
"What we need from the Syrians and the Syrian government is the full cooperation on the Mehlis-Brammertz commission," he said. "The quicker they cooperate, the quicker the problem will end and the quicker we will know who killed Rafik Hariri, and the quicker the problem will be resolved in the region."
Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, who also spoke this week in Washington, says Damascus is cooperating with the U.N. investigation.
"We do understand that the stakes are very high," he said. "On the one hand, we will continue to cooperate with this investigation because it is in our national interest to reveal the actual truth about who killed Hariri. On the other hand, we also understand there are important forces and influential parties who will try to do everything possible to cause Syria as much damage as possible."
He said the Lebanese should not rush to condemn Syria.
"What we are trying to say is show some respect and dignity and some fairness and logic," he said. "There will be an investigation, wait and let's see the results of these investigations before you start pointing fingers and accuse parties here and there."
When Saad Hariri meets President Bush Friday at the White House, he says he will ask for U.S. help to secure Lebanon's borders and improve its internal security.
"We have good leadership in the army; we have good leadership in the internal security forces," he said. "But we need to build them up. We need to give them what they need. We need these guys to work day and night, and they are doing it, but we need to give them the tools to work day and night."
Despite the continuing danger in Lebanon for Hariri, he says he hopes to return home soon. He said in the year since his father's assassination, Lebanon has passed through difficult times, but he expressed optimism that it would emerge a free and stable nation.