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Lebanon approves U.N. tribunal to investigate Hariri assassination

BEIRUT—On a busy West Beirut street corner, a black billboard featuring a photograph of Rafik Hariri counts off the number of days since the former prime minister's still-unsolved assassination sparked a popular uprising that forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon after decades of political domination.

"The truth," reads the billboard, which on Saturday was up to 650 days.

"For Lebanon's sake."

Nearly two years after the Cedar Revolution propelled pro-Western leaders into power and created a brief period of fragile national unity, attempts to find out the truth are threatening to create dangerous new political fissures.

On Saturday, Lebanon's cabinet set the stage for a political showdown by unanimously approving the establishment of a special United Nations tribunal with the power to try those involved in the assassination.

The vote throws the issue in the hands of the country's pro-Syria opposition leaders who consider the action an unconstitutional and provocative act.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, head of the nation's most powerful militia, is threatening to stage street protests until the government falls.

And Hezbollah allies in the government have vowed to quash the international investigation.

"This is not a provocation to any party," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said after the cabinet vote, which was held as Lebanese soldiers fanned out across Beirut in an effort to contain any possible problems.

The dispute is about much more than finding out who killed Hariri. It is about the role of outside forces in Lebanese politics and whether the country's growing Shiite community should be given a greater role in the government.

Creation of the United Nations body still faces significant hurdles. It must be endorsed by President Emile Lahoud, a Hezbollah ally who considers the cabinet approval unconstitutional. And the tribunal must win approval from the Lebanese parliament, which is dominated by pro-Western lawmakers but headed by Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri, a prominent Shiite leader who could delay the vote.

Attempts by either Lahoud or Berri to derail the investigation could deepen the rifts and heighten tensions.

Hariri's political heirs see the tribunal as their best chance to prove widely held suspicions that Syria is behind the killing and an ongoing string of assassinations in Lebanon that have targeted a series of anti-Syrian figures. Syria has consistently denied playing any role in the political killings but views the tribunal as something of a kangaroo court.

As the Lebanese cabinet moved two weeks ago to give its initial approval to the tribunal, six Hezbollah allies in the Lebanese cabinet resigned in a bid to topple the government. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora refused to accept the resignations, and the cabinet endorsed the tribunal. Lahoud and Berri have deemed the cabinet actions unconstitutional.

Resolving the standoff peacefully was already a difficult challenge last week when gunmen killed Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, a member of a prominent and controversial Christian political family.

The assassination deprived Saniora of an important ally and cast a pall over a nation still peppered with bullet-scarred buildings that serve as stark reminders of the country's 15-year civil war. Saniora's allies and Hariri's political heirs transformed Gemayel's funeral on Tuesday into a massive political rally that heightened the divisions. Demonstrators cursed Nasrallah, mocked Shiite religious traditions and denounced Syria, which many suspect is behind the string of assassinations.

Hours later, small groups of angry Shiite mobs briefly stormed through the streets looking for a confrontation until Nasrallah made an appeal for calm on Hezbollah's television station.

Leaders across the political spectrum have been trying to head off any clashes that could spark a new sectarian war. But many worry that such appeals will only go so far.

"You can't curb the street for a long time," said Moshen Saleh, a sociologist and Hezbollah ally at Lebanese University. "So the majority has to do something to show its good intentions."

In the Shiite neighborhoods around Beirut, residents on Saturday said they are prepared to push their demands.

"We are ready. We are ready. We are ready," said Aziz Najdi, a 36-year-old storeowner. "If it is winter, if we are under attack, if it is hot, we are ready to go at a moment's notice."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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