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UN Commission Seeks Interview With Syrian President

The U.N. commission investigating the February 14 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri has asked to interview Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa. The request follows statements issued by former Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam that appear to implicate President al-Assad in Mr. Harriri's death.

In addition to interviews with the Syrian president and the foreign minister, the U.N. commission's spokeswoman said they will also seek an interview with former Syrian vice president Abdul-Halim Khaddam.

Mr. Khaddam, who lives in Paris, formally broke ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an interview Friday with the Pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Arribiyya. He alleged that in 2004 President al-Assad demanded Lebanon issue a three-year term extension for pro-Syrian then-president Emile Lahoud.

He said President al-Assad told Mr. Harriri that he would crush anyone who opposed Syria.

Syria's parliament recommended Saturday that Mr. Khaddam be tried for high treason, and the Baath Party has officially ousted him. He served as vice president under al-Assad's father, Hafez. He resigned in June.

Lebanese American University political science professor Sami Baroudi says it is unusual for a politician to act in a way that would break ties with the Baath Party, since defection in the past was met with harsh penalty. He said Mr. Khaddam's decision to issue statements against Syria offers further evidence of a weakening Baath Party.

"You know they had a fairly high level of discipline in the past, but I think currently, very few people still really believe in the ideology of the party. So I think, you know, major figures have reached a point where, you know, really the notion of loyalty to the party has gotten very weak, because ideologically the party is defunct," he said.

Professor Baroudi said Mr. Khaddam may have received some financial assistance for making his information public, although he believes the statements are essentially correct. He said they reflect the previous Syrian mode of thinking when dealing with Lebanon.

He predicts that Syria will amass a large file of corruption charges against Mr. Khaddam in order to discredit him, if one is not already available, but this strategy could backfire.

"He probably has, like, a bit of dirt, against the regime, and I am sure the regime has a great deal of dirt," explained Mr. Baroudi. "So I think it is going to be sort of a mutual recrimination. Many of the sayings they are going to say about him are also true, but again the question that bases itself: How could a regime that claims to be so committed, to socialist, nationalistic values tolerate so much corruption in its midst? So the more the regime is going to reveal damaging stories about Khaddam, the more people are saying, 'Well, we know that. But, why did you keep him for so long in a leadership position?"

In a November speech, al-Assad told the Syrian people that he would never bow to foreign pressure. The former head of the U.N. commission, Detliv Mehlis, accused the Syrian government of not cooperating with the U.N. inquiry. The committee is still waiting for Syria to respond to its interview requests.