ANALYSIS / How Will 'Revelation' on Hariri Impact Lebanon Vote?

Timing, vagueness of report suggest it was released to sway elections rather than reveal truth.

Yesterday's report in the German weekly Der Spiegel that Hezbollah was behind the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri will have a dramatic impact on Lebanon's June 7 elections, and on the militant group's stature in the country's political arena. The magazine reported that the United Nations tribunal established to investigate Hariri's murder has found evidence suggesting the militant group was behind the assassination.

Hezbollah currently holds 14 of Lebanon's 128 parliamentary seats, and had expected the elections to dramatically increase its legislative presence. Now, even before the report is verified as accurate, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah will have to wage a concerted campaign of denial and damage control likely to zero in on Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and of course, Israel, which it views as seeking to divert attention from allegations that it is operating Lebanese spies by leaking the Hariri story.

According to the article, which is based on unnamed sources, Lebanese detectives monitored the telephone conversations of individuals in the vicinity when Hariri was killed in the massive blast in Beirut, which led them to Hezbollah's special forces unit.

The report should be treated cautiously for now, as the sources behind it remain unclear, and many of those who could testify to its veracity are dead or missing.

The Lebanese officer investigating the mobile phone connections was killed, and Imad Mughniyeh, who oversaw Hezbollah's special forces unit, was killed in Damascus last year.

Suspicious timing

It is possible that the UN investigator examining the Hariri assassination received new information refuting earlier intelligence estimates that the murder was the work of the Syrian regime and Lebanese intelligence officials linked to it. The timing of the report, however, gives the impression that it was released more to alter election results than to bring the truth to light.

Most Lebanese believe Syria masterminded Hariri's assassination to maintain its slipping control over Lebanon, a charge Damascus vehemently denies.

If the report is verified as accurate, questions would still abound over Hezbollah's motivation in eliminating Hariri. The former prime minister accumulated many enemies during his political climb, from business interests who claimed he reneged on debts to Islamic fundamentalists who objected to his secular politics.

The UN investigator will now apparently be forced to either confirm or deny the Der Spiegel report to prevent the international body from being dragged into the Lebanese electoral maelstrom.