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Expected Hezbollah Indictments Have Lebanese on Edge

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, fourth right, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, second right, and Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, fifth right, attend military parade marking 67th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France, in Beirut

A U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is expected to issue indictments in the case soon. In Lebanon, that has raised concerns of possible violence if members of Hezbollah are implicated.

In some parts of Beirut, people say the court will deliver justice. In other areas, people call the court a Western political tool, set up to discredit Hezbollah - a key player in the Lebanese government and the nation's strongest militia force.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

Hezbollah dominance

In a Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim neighborhood in central Beirut, Hezbollah and its allies are popular. Not far from a Hezbollah office, a few men fix motorcycles in a garage. Hassan, a customer, said that if the court indicts Hezbollah members, he does not expect the organization to call for an uprising. He warns, however, that people will riot.

"If it's going to happen - the indictments - I feel like I'm going to get some wheels [i.e., vehicle tires] and start burning them on the street like this," said Hassan. "Throw the wheels on the street and burn them."

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denies that his organization played a role in Hariri's assassination, and he has vowed to "cut the hand" of anyone who attempts to arrest Hezbollah members.

The Hezbollah leadership has said it will 'cut the hand' of any one who attempts to arrest its members
The Hezbollah leadership has said it will 'cut the hand' of any one who attempts to arrest its members

But arrests might not follow any indictments. Late last week, the court ruled that it could hold trials in absentia - without suspects in attendance.

Trials in absentia

Since 2008, Hezbollah has been widely viewed as the strongest single faction in Lebanon's divided political landscape, and that it could wield its power through political pressure.

Analysts say this leaves Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader, in a tight spot. Like the United States, he backs the court and says it will bring justice for his father. But peaceful ties between his government and Hezbollah, which is allied with nearly half of the parliament, are crucial to Lebanese stability.

Mohammad Melah owns a tobacco shop in central Beirut. He said Hezbollah and its supporters will not resort to violence because Lebanese people have been following the controversy closely. They know the court is international, not local, he said. An indictment, said Melah, does not mean that Hezbollah members will be dragged out of Lebanon.

After 15 years of civil war that ended in 1990, as well as a war with Israel in 2006, and clashes between Hezbollah and Lebanon's government in 2008, many Lebanese say there will be no violence because people are sick of fighting.

More than two years since the last major sectarian strife, Lebanon waits in a period of relative calm for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue indictments
More than two years since the last major sectarian strife, Lebanon waits in a period of relative calm for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue indictments

In a family-owned cell phone shop just up the hill, Mohammad Negim said there will be no violence as long as the indictments of Hezbollah members do not mean arrests. He said that if Hezbollah wants, it could take over Lebanon within two weeks.

In 2008, Hezbollah militants and their allies briefly asserted their strength, taking over West Beirut and surrounding the country's only airport. Analysts warn that although another Hezbollah takeover is not imminent, the possibility is increasingly real.

Justice vs. reprisals

Fares Souaid, the secretary general of the March 14 alliance, the party of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said Hezbollah's leaders are manipulating Shi'ite public opinion. Souaid says Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah makes the Shi'ite community feel that the indictments are against the entire community, not specific members of Hezbollah.

"He is trying to protect himself, as an organization, by the Shi'ite community and saying that, 'You are accused and I am not accused alone. You are accused in the assassination,'" said Souaid.

On the other side of Beirut, in a Christian-dominated neighborhood, locals say they are worried that indictments could lead to civil unrest. Some say the tribunal should back down for the sake of peace in Lebanon. Others, like Gerard Gebeily, who owns an upscale women's clothing store, say that violence in Beirut might be the price of justice.

"The issue is justice has to happen, whatever the issue is afterwards," said Gebeily. "We are afraid of the result of this tribunal, but we have to have the truth first, and, after, we deal with the rest."

Gebeily also said he hopes there is no violence, but that after decades of unrest, Lebanon needs to end this chapter of its history by prosecuting former Prime Minister Hariri's assassins, no matter who they are.

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