As Lebanon braces for a U.N. tribunal to announce indictments in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, one key suspect is beyond the scope of any court of law.
Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's chief of operations until his own assassination in Damascus in 2008, likely played a role in the massive car bombing that claimed the lives of the former Lebanese prime minister and 22 others in Beirut. Mughniyeh's brother-in-law, Mustafa Badreddine, was questioned by the tribunal in April. Experts on Lebanon and Hezbollah say it is difficult to envision a crime of such scale and consequence without Mughniyeh's involvement.
"My guess is no," said Mona Yacoubian, director of the Lebanon Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), asked if the Hariri assassination could have been pulled off without Mughniyeh's knowledge. She added, "It would be hard to know how it could have been done without the connivance of Syria given its role in Lebanon in 2005."
After a three-year investigation by a U.N. special tribunal, much more is known about the assassination of Hariri than the death of Mughniyeh. Press reports have linked Hezbollah to cell phones used by the Hariri plotters. Yacoubian and other Lebanon analysts say indictments are expected against as many as half a dozen Hezbollah operatives as soon as this month or early next year.
Hezbollah has reacted defiantly, suggesting without any evidence that Israel was somehow involved in Hariri's murder. Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, threatened last month to "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest a militia member.
But the Syrians, nervous at first that they would be blamed given well-publicized differences between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now seem to believe that the tribunal will leave the regime alone despite its long, complicated relationship with the Lebanese Shiite group. "There have been no indications that Syrians are among the list of indicted names," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Could that be in part because Mughniyeh was involved and he is now in no position to speak?
Landis doubts Syrian responsibility for Mughniyeh's death, noting that he was considered a "hero" in Syria for his role in helping to chase Israel from southern Lebanon. "For the Syrians to kill their own hero -- even for the most wizened Mukhabarat -- would be very demoralizing," Landis said, using the Arabic term for secret police. "On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for Israel or America" given the number of Americans, Israelis, and Jews Mughniyeh helped kill.